Common Sense Comes to Town!

Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have. (Descartes)

Explaining Grief to Children

Posted on | December 22, 2011 | 1 Comment

One of my great worries as a parent and atheist was to have to, one day, unavoidably explain death and grief to my children. I should point out that this is probably a thought that worries every parent, no matter what their convictions are. But while other modes of thought offer frames, guides or tool to present a preconceived vision of death, I had to find other means to discuss the issue.

The occasion unfortunately happened this week following death in my family. I’ll take this opportunity to share my experience and thoughts on the matter. I don’t expect them to have universal appeal. My reactions and those of my children were motivated by our previous experiences, thoughts and education. They probably won’t apply to every context.

In any case, the death of an extended family member, whom they had met a few times before, allowed me to bring up the issue. As there had been warning signs, their mother had talked with them a bit before. Things drew to a close, and I had no choice but to sit down with them to bring them the sad news.

While the youngest wasn’t overly moved (he has only the vaguest memories of the departed) the eldest, who has also begun to build strong family values, reacted more strongly. But once the shock and tears were over, we could deal with the matters of grief and death in general.

To my great surprise, the topic of what would come « after » was never even raised. Their questions mostly touched on the causes of death. Why do some people die old, other young (they had the recent news of the tragic death by drowning of a 6 year-old boy in mind)? Where do people live the longest? Could other elderly persons in their surroundings die soon?

These are all tough questions, of course, but they have answers. We discussed openly about diseases, about the problems that age brings, about life expectancy, the risks to die in an accident or victim of a crime. Through these questions, acceptance was getting nearer. Death wasn’t trivialized, of course, but contextualized. An event that shocked by its unusual character at first became an unavoidable fact of life that one had to accept. To seek shelter in an abstract set of dogma never was necessary.

Of course grief would have been harder if death had struck closer to them. I’m aware of my luck, but am happy nevertheless that I could lay with them the foundation of an understanding (as much as is possible, anyway) of death – one that is sensible, delicate, wary of mysticism but seeking to showcase life in all its frail and unique beauty.


One Response to “Explaining Grief to Children”

  1. Nicoline Smits
    January 18th, 2012 @ 09:49

    My kids were 9 and 7 when their paternal grandfather died. Due to our emigration to the U.S. they had not been very close to him, but there had been sufficient contact over the years that they knew him. They knew he was ill, but we kept the details of what it involved (late stage prostate cancer, emphysema) from them, but we did not hide our grief. At the cremation, they were asked to light a candle for their grandpa in a commemorative sort of way, not as a religious ritual, and without being prompted by us or anyone else, they lit both candles while holding hands and touching the flame to the wick cooperatively. That spontaneous gesture was very moving. My mother-in-law later told me that she had taken great comfort from it. When a friend of ours, the father of one of the kids’ classmates, died they were ready to deal with it more than some of the other kids who had been told all sorts of nonsense about how he’d look down to earth and stuff like that. Of course, they weren’t close to him, but again, I did not hide my grief – it’s not nothing, after all, when your friend’s husband dies within a couple of months of being diagnosed with a brain tumor. But they never had any trouble with the concept that dead means that the person is gone, but you have your memories and you can still love him. That sentiment was very helpful to them when their paternal grandmother died late last year. The oldest was now old enough to deliver a eulogy and while we grief for her, we are none of us bereft in that we have lots of memories to hold on to.

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