“The turtles legs are falling off,” sang my co-worker’s fidgety 5-year-old son as he moonwalked across the waiting room with a carelessness that only comes with not knowing any better. We had driven 35 minutes during rush hour traffic to bring their beloved bloated reptile to the vet since she had Googled “turtle dying symptoms,” dialed local vets and stressed throughout the workday. Unfortunately, after hearing the opposing advisory of two vets, giving the pet vitamin shots and a taunting turn for the best, my co-worker found the pet’s limp and lifeless body resting on a rock two mornings later. And that same boy who was re-enacting Michael Jackson’s Motown 25 “Billie Jean” performance while the family pet gasped for air in the next room, burst into tears at the news that Scooter was “no longer with us.”
It can be an extremely difficult thing for a parent to explain life’s limits while looking into the bright eyes of someone whose life has barely begun, but as a parent there will come a time where you’ll be forced to do so if you haven’t yet volunteered. I still remember my father struggling to explain to me why my rabbit urinated on him before taking its last breath in his hands. There were tears and feelings of loss that a 7-year-old just couldn’t understand.
If you’re having trouble initiating the dreaded “all things die” talk, you have to try to see things from your child’s point of view. This talk can sound completely different depending on whether you’re addressing a 5-year-old or 15-year-old. Until children are about five or six their view of the world is very concrete. This probably explains why my co-workers mini moonwalker couldn’t associate the turtle’s ballooned legs with sickness at the very least, let alone death. Since children at this age are so literal, it’s important to avoid cute sayings that only make the parent more comfortable like “Grandma is sleeping for a long time,” which could result in your child developing anxiety issues with sleep. Children also have trouble grasping the finality of death and the fact that it occurs to all living things. To make the process easier, talk about death in a very physical way such as, “Grandma’s heart stopped working” or “Grandma is at the cemetery” instead of trying to break down intangible concepts of an afterlife.
You also may want to take a look at your own feelings and beliefs about death. It’s important that children learn the proper way to grieve through example. They shouldn’t be discouraged from crying or talking even if you still have issues with death yourself. As much as loved ones may have good intentions advising, “You have to be strong for your children,” it’s important for your children to see that it’s okay to be sad, resentful, angry, or mournful, but those feelings should be brought to the surface and dealt with in a healthy way instead of being hidden. You want to be a solid source of support for your children; find a balance between crumbling into pieces and being an emotionless brick wall. You’re a parent, but you’re only human and it’s healthy for your kids to see that.
Around the ages 6-10, children may develop natural fears about death associated with myths and stories they hear (i.e., the boogeyman and ghosts). It’s important to not feed into fears and give them honest, clear information about death. Instead of simply sending your child back to bed when they say the boogeyman’s in the closet, explore the closet with them and show them there’s nothing to be afraid of. Ask them what they think will happen if the boogeyman gets them so they have a chance to express any fears about pain and what death “feels” like.