Wednesday, July 2, 2008

talking honestly with kids about death

Last week I did a sixteen hour round tripper to Wichita for my grandmother's funeral and my oldest son came along with me. He didn't ask many questions, he just wanted to know where we were going and why. A few years ago my other grandmother died. At her funeral this same child was in attendance. During the dinner he asked, "Why did they lock your grandmother in a case?" It provided a bit of comic relief initially, but also a poigniant opportunity to talk to my son for the first time about the reality of life and death. I think sometimes we shy away from talking to our kids about death. Or we try and shelter them from it, talking to them in wishy-washy words that make it seem a bit less real than it really is.

Last week another striking-yet-poigniant moment came along. We took our kids out to the lake for a cookout and a young boy from our church came along. All the boys rode in the pickup with me. On our way we passed by the cemetary at the edge of town. My nephew says aloud, "My grandma Dora is in a cemetary. She died." To which one of my boys responded, "My daddy's grandma just died. They're gonna put her in a cemetary." Then the boy from our church joined the conversation saying, "I didn't get to see my grandma or grandpa much before they died. My grandma died of cancer, which is a very bad illness. My grandpa died because he was an alcoholic."

While I was a bit stunned by the sheer bluntness of the boy's statements, I was very appreciative of them. Here at a very young age this boy understood a bit of the reality of life and death, and about consequences of the choices we make. I appreciated that this boy's family didn't shy away from the facts regarding his grandfather's death. It's a bit of truth about life that this boy will always remember. While some would say his family should have given him solely positive memories, I disagree. To only discuss the positive memories would be to tell a partial truth (lie) and would shelter him unnecessarily. As it is, the boy is well adjusted to his grandfather's death and understands it as completely as a 10 year old can.

When you talk to your kids about death, don't shy away from it. Don't get wishy-washy or talk about it in storybook language. Talk openly and honestly with your kids about death. They can handle it. And don't forget to talk to them about what our faith tradition teaches us about death.

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