There is nothing like facing your mortality to remind you of how precious life truly is and what matters most in life.
Recently, a loved one had to undergo a life-saving major operation. In the days leading up to it, the children and I would visit the patient and, at night, pray fervently for a successful operation and a complications-free recovery.
Fortunately, our prayers were answered and all is well.
It was during one of those visits that my son, Santi, 5, began to wonder about certain things. After reassuring him that we were not there for him to get an injection, the questions began to fly. Naturally, it eventually led to the subject of death.
Death, whether hypothetical or real, is never an easy topic. Add to this the delicate balancing act of explaining its true nature to a child without frightening him and you have a long discussion ahead of you.
Often, we try to shield children from the harsh reality of death, assuming that they will not understand or be able to accept it until they are older and more mature. Surprisingly (at least it was to me), children understand far more than we give them credit for and can actually take on simple discussions on death as early as 4 years old.
Using simple words, you can start with the first and most basic concept of death.
In a study on the children’s concept of death, published by the University of Cincinnati, scientists discovered that up to 58 percent of 4-year-olds interviewed understand the concept of irreversibility, the first aspect of death.
This is a far jump from only 10 percent of 3-year-olds being able to grasp the concept of irreversibility and its connection to death. But beginning age 4, most children are able to understand that once something has died, the action cannot be undone nor can the person return to live with them again.
But while a child may be able to grasp the idea, there are still two other aspects that escape their reasoning until around the ages of 5 to 7. During these years, children begin to realize that the meaning of death, aside from being something that cannot be undone, involves nonfunctionality.
At this point, they come to realize that not only is the person not returning but can no longer engage in the same activities living people do. This is perhaps the moment that death becomes more real to kids and they begin to realize just how permanent it is.
Perhaps this is the reason it takes a while for the third aspect to sink in: universality.
Knowing full well the loss that comes with death at this point, most children take on an attitude of denial when referring to death in the sense that, yes, it will happen to everything and everyone—fish, plants, flowers and people, but only to other people. Pillars of support such as parents and teachers, and most certainly themselves, are somehow exempt from this phenomenon.
However, a carefully worded and gently reassuring conversation can help a child navigate this difficult phase and allow them to accept the inevitability of death.
Fear of the unknown and separation anxiety will naturally serve as sources of anxiety for a child and questions will need to be answered as often as they come up, which may come once or twice or in other cases, frequently.
Separation anxiety is perhaps the strongest source of fear for children, especially when applied toward the idea of being separated from their source of comfort: their parents.
Though nobody can predict the future, the best comfort we can give a child is to make them aware of the natural cycle of life, and how it will come, but (hopefully) not until many, many, years later, when they themselves are old as well and can manage because, at that point, they will also have other companions in life—their own spouse and children, as well as the siblings they grow up with. It is important to stress that they will not be left alone.
Be direct, don’t invent
While it may be tempting to brush off their questions in our own attempt to minimize their fears, it is far more useful to the child to get direct answers using simple words.
And while it may be difficult, it is better to answer honestly and admit when we don’t know, rather than invent an explanation, which may lead to more confusion for the child.
Sometimes, we attempt to gloss over death by comparing it to a more innocuous concept, such as sleep. But doing so may bring about a fear of going to sleep for the child, if he connects it with death.
While many people die peacefully, there is always the fear of pain at the time of death, which children may also bring up. An honest conversation on the pain-relieving properties of medicines may be useful, as well as a reminder that the actual moment itself (supposedly) passes without pain.
For children brought up in faith, this is the point when the soul and that of heaven come into focus.
It is reassuring for people to know that there is a chance of being reunited with their loved ones, and better yet, with the God who is the source of all joy, for all eternity.
This brings great comfort to many and children are no different. Just as they can sense fear, they can also sense hope and by allowing them to see death through the prism of hope, we give them the chance to see death in a light that is not as fearsome after all.