Conversations with kids about death
I was on a flight home sitting next to two kids, ages six and nine, both girls. They were playing games with their laptops, and watching movies, while I worked on my computer. One of the little girls asked me what I was doing, and I explained that I was doing "work stuff," which of course led to the question, "what do you do for work?" I told her I was a nurse, and they told me their mom was a nurse too. Their mom leaned in and asked me what kind of nurse I was, and I told her I was a hospice nurse (she works in pediatrics). Her kids asked me what "hospice" was and before answering, I asked their mom if it was okay to explain it to them, and she said "yes."
I did my best to tell them that I am there for people who are dying, so they do not die alone. One of the girls told me that their grandmother died a few weeks ago and said, "I made sure she wasn't alone too." I asked her what she did for her grandmother, and she told me that they drew pictures for her, watched movies with her, sat next to her bed, and the six-year-old said, "I let her have my teddy bear because it always makes me feel better." I let them both know what wonderful care they provided and assured them that their grandmother took all that love with her.
The nine-year-old said something quite profound, "I know she heard us when we talked to her, even though she couldn't talk back to us." I asked how she knew that, and she said, "Because when you love someone, and they love you, you just know. When I told her I love her, I know she said it back to me in her head, and when I said "goodbye" to her when she died, I know she said it back to me too." I said to them, "you are absolutely right, and so wise for being so young." They both smiled.
I explained that I talk to people all the time when they cannot talk to me, because I too know they hear me. I want them to know they are not alone, and that they are safe, and that when I am at their bedside, I will always make sure they are cared for well. One of the girls asked me how many people I have been with when they died, and were shocked to hear my answer, so was their mother.
The six-year-old had a teddy bear next to her, so I asked, "Is that the bear that comforted your grandmother?" The little girl said that it was, and that after her grandmother died, she felt like the bear was cuddlier and sometimes when she hugs it, she thinks it hugs her back. The nine-year-old giggled and told her that wasn't true, which clearly hurt her sisters feelings. I told them that we don't always have to see things the same way, and we might not agree, but if something brings us comfort, or makes us feel safe, that can't be a bad thing. I shared that when my brother died, I saved a note he had written me and sometimes when I feel really sad, I will hold the note and pretend for just a moment that he is right there with me saying those words. The nine-year-old apologized to her sister, and then they both went back to their games.
I have spoken to many children about death and dying and while some might not have the emotional maturity to truly understand what death and dying means, most do, and I think the very best thing we can do for them is to be honest. Mostly though I think we need to find a way to trust them and at least offer them the choice to be at bedside, and to say goodbye. I love that these little girls were there for their grandmother, and that they drew her pictures and sat with her. I love that they know she heard them... I think that is the best part. I have met adults who were not told their family member was ill or dying and didn't get the chance to say goodbye, which stayed with them all of their lives. I think kids should at least be asked and given the opportunity to choose to be present or not. And if they say no, that's oaky too.
As we were walking off the plane, their mother said to me, "thank you for the way you talked to them, death is a difficult topic, but you made it safe for them."
If we teach kids early on to be afraid of death or uncomfortable to talk about it, I believe that it will affect how they grieve moving forward. If we do anything at all for them, it should be to offer them a chance to say goodbye to a family member, friend, or even their pets before they die. And if they don't get that chance but wanted to, perhaps offer them a special candle lighting to say goodbye and send love... that's what I would do.
They will have a lot of goodbyes in their lifetime, it should be something they feel safe to talk about, participate in, and do.