Mischief has another nickname – The Philosopher. She’s always been insightful and empathetic beyond what I expect for her years and it’s reflected in what she says. I was putting her to bed one night shortly after my grandmother died (Mischief was 3). She looked at me and said,
“Mommy, I know you’re upset that your grandmother died but you could always borrow mine if you’re sad. It just how the world works mommy. People get old and die and they just don’t come back and we get sad. But we don’t want to change that part of the world mom. It’s just how things have to be. Things aren’t always easy, but we just have to deal with them. But sometimes they come back – they just look different when they come back and maybe you can meet them again. It’ll be ok.”
A month later, again at bedtime, she said, “Mommy, can you tell me a story tonight about your grandmother? I know you’re sad that she died and if you tell me about her you won’t forget her.” Even now, over a year after my grandmother died, Mischief still talks about her.
I was thinking about this and realized that too often we shy away from discussing death with kids. When she first started talking about my grandmother dying, I tried to change the topic a dozen times. She’d want a story about my grandmother and I’d ask if I could tell her something fun that she would do with her grandmother. Death is uncomfortable enough for adults to talk about and deal with. When children want to have the conversation it’s almost paralyzing. I don’t think that every child can talk about it somewhat coherently (Mayhem doesn’t seem to have the same philosophical nature as her sister), but I may very well be wrong about that. That might be me selling kids short.
Kids seem to understand more of their world than we give them credit for (see my above statement). Yes, she’s a kid and there are things that she doesn’t understand. However, she’s observant and a sponge when it comes to life. She’s a member of this family and can tell when someone’s upset and something’s bothering us. Why do I think that the kids won’t have serious thoughts on serious things?
I think it’s less about kids not understanding death or not being able to think hard thoughts; it has more to do with adults (including me) not being comfortable talking about it. Too often, conversations that make adults uncomfortable are shied away from because the kids are ‘too young and wouldn’t understand.’ It sounds better than ‘I don’t know what to say so I’m going to avoid this altogether.’ We, as grown-ups, don’t like to say to kids that we don’t know something or can’t talk about something. We’d rather the kids be the reason for avoiding the talk than our own hang-ups.
I’m trying to change this with the kids. I talk to them about death as much as they want (my other grandmother is 90 and in increasingly declining health, so it’s going to come up again sooner rather than later). I try to have conversations that are difficult and treat their philosophy as something to be explored, not dismissed. I don’t always hit the mark – there are times when I either expect more than they can give or don’t give them enough credit for their thoughts. I’m working on it though, and love hearing what they have to say.