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Communicating death to your children

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My dear mother – God bless her soul, was really ill for a while and stayed with us whilst undergoing treatment and palliative care for breast cancer. She was a daily presence in our lives and my children, then 5yrs and 2yrs, were used to ‘Mama Nessy’ as she was popularly called, being at home. She died whilst undergoing a nursing procedure in the house and the nurse who was with her reported that she peacefully fell asleep while being attended to and never woke up again.

I got the call while at work and my first thought was how to explain to my children that their grandmother had died. How would I speak to a 5 year old and a 2 year old in a manner that wouldn’t alarm them or make them think that something most awful had happened? Very often as adults, we are extremely alarmed about death and our reactions are more often than not, overwhelming. I remember thinking while driving home from the office, how important it was for me to talk to my children about her death in a manner that wouldn’t frighten them or instill in them an inane fear of death.Death is inevitable; we will all die, even though we are by culture, socialization and repeated exposure, extremely afraid of death. It was my utmost prayer not to extend this orientation to my children.

And so when I got home, I called the boys into my mother’s room where she was lying peacefully on her bed, and explained to them that grandma had died. Being the curious little boys that they were (and still are) I was peppered with numerous questions. My 5 year old wanted to know how exactly I knew she was dead. I explained that when people are alive, their hearts beat and that hers wasn’t beating. And to further explain I proposed we all put our ears on her chest and listen. Which we did and they confirmed indeed that her heart was not beating. I also explained that when people die they stop breathing. We then watched her chest carefully and the boys confirmed indeed that it was not rising and falling as would be the case if one was asleep and not dead. And finally, we put our ears near her nose and the boys confirmed that she wasn’t breathing.

I also explained to them that the funeral home would come to take her body away and that they would put her in a carriage box and take her to the mortuary. When the attendants came, they were surprised to find two little helpers who assisted them along to put Mama Nessy in the box and carry her away to the vehicle.

My colleagues at work and many of my friends were deeply shocked at this activity. I was asked with eyes wide in shock and horror “You What????!!!! You let your little boys into the room when the body was in there???” “You What???!!!! You helped your children put their hands and ears on the dead body?” I think had it not been a period of loss, they would have had me packed up and committed to the nearest mental health facility. I found though, that this exercise served to demystify death for my children. Kids are very discerning. They know when things are ‘wrong’ and adults are trying to hide it. They were very stable and balanced throughout the burial period despite many dramatic acts that were performed both at my parents’ house and upcountry, because they understood. They understood that death is normal, it happens and it isn’t a big bad thing that paralyses and instills fear. I was very thankful for this transition.

So recently when we lost our nanny, who’d been with us for nine years, after a sudden illness, my worry came back a million-fold. Unlike Mama Nessy who’d stayed with us for months, Nanny Maggie had been with my children all their life. She was their mum too, a mentor and friend. I wondered how to break the news to them as I got home from the Hospital and I wondered what to do and say this time round. I sought the wise counsel of Father James Clesham who had these little nuggets of wisdom that I now hold dear and treasure, for they pulled us through. He said:
Provide clarity about death: Do not ever use ‘loose’ words with your children when telling them about death. He shared that Kenyans, and Africans in general have a morbid fear of saying out loud that someone has died. They often say things like ‘she passed away’ ‘she passed on’ ‘ she left us’ ‘ she is no more’ ‘she was called to glory’ ‘she has gone to be with the Father’ ‘we lost her’ with similar expressions in Kiswahili ‘Ameaga dunia’ ‘Mungu Amemuita’ ‘Amelala’ etc. Fr. James explained that these sorts of expressions create a gap in the child’s mind that they then go and fill with their own interpretations and conclusions. He said that we must use the word die, or died and conclusively so, to enable the child have clarity.

Pre-empt unnecessary worry: Emphasize that death is painless. Fr. James explained that children are acutely aware of pain, they fall a lot, get injured during play and have a good appreciation of pain. He advised that we should repeatedly confirm to the children that our dear Nanny Maggie was not in any pain and that as she lies still and dead, she is pain free. That this serves to alleviate children’s worry that death is riddled with pain and gives them the peace of knowing the dead person is not hurting.

Influence positive closure to the matter: Depending on your religious orientation – comfort the children that the body and soul are no longer attached. He advised that one should explain to the children that the dead person’s soul has moved on. If one is Christian in orientation then one would explain that the person has gone to be with Jesus or gone to Heaven. The key point to note would be to have them understand that what is left is only physical and that the person’s soul is in peace.

Armed with this communication strategy in mind, I went home to talk to my boys. They were sad, I must say, but they took it much better than I thought. The smaller one even said – ‘Oh? She was sick and died just like Mama Nessy?’ and I was glad that the Mama Nessy death lessons were still alive.

I am truly thankful that although it has been quite a trying period, and we indeed have a gap in our family that only time and divine intervention will help heal, this has been made much easier to deal with as a result of candid and forthright communication with the children about death.

We are the authors of our children’s lives. The things we do and most importantly the things we say shape their destinies. Our children are very perceptive, much more than we can ever imagine. I encourage any one of us who has lost a loved one through death, or is going through the loss period to continuously talk to your children and demystify any underlying perception or insights they may have had or formed about death, and to listen to them and reassure them to embrace both life and death in all their unique distinctions.

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