Written by Pauline Hammond, Grampians Region Family Support Practitioner
I attended the family home armed with story books, craft supplies, and some apprehension about the conversation. Family members gathered around me with bowed heads, tired eyes, and tear-stained faces; some with cheeks still wet. The young and the old. They looked at me expectantly.
I asked, “Who knows why I am here?”.
One brave little voice answered., “Cause our brother is going to die”.
My response, “And what do you think that means?”
“That he won’t live here”
“That he won’t have any more birthdays”
“That we will be sad”
“That he won’t be sick anymore”
“That mum and dad will cry”
“That his body doesn’t work”
The children began, and with some encouragement, led the conversation. The adults listened as each child expressed their thoughts, without judgement, and without fear.
“Why do you think we have a funeral?”
“To say goodbye”
“To have a party”
“For everyone to come and bring food”
“To bury the body”
“So we can see the grave”
“What do you believe happens to our body when we die?”
“It turns into an angel”
“Our spirit floats up to heaven and we play on the clouds”
“We come back as kittens and puppies”
“We protect our family”
“We are ghosts”
“We turn into dust”
“What are you worried or scared about?”
“That I will die too”
“That mum or dad will die”
“Who is going to look after me?”
“That we will be sad forever”
“That our smiles are all gone”
and finally…. “Who can you talk to?”
“My friends’ mum”
“My big brother”
Talking about death and dying is tough. Talking about death and dying with children, is really tough, but it can also be enlightening. The conversation is an opportunity for children to be curious, to express themselves, to be heard, and to identify where to turn for help when the emotions feel too big. Having the conversation can dissipate the fear often associated with death. It can validate feelings, calm insecurities, and clarify for adults what the children are thinking.
The death and dying conversation is hard, but having it will begin a process of understanding and acceptance. A process that will be revisited by children many times, as they reach new developmental milestones and have a greater capacity for cognitive consideration. So, what do you think happens to our bodies when we die? I’m all in for the kittens and puppies philosophy.
(Note: This conversation is a compilation of many comments shared by children. It is not a singular representation, although it could be.)
Written by Pauline Hammond, Grampians Family Support Practitioner