“But she’s a child!”
I was 10 years old when I experienced my first significant death. I had seen it before- my paternal grandfather died when I was 6 and a parade of animals was always coming and going. Growing up in a Christian household meant that I was already made aware that our current lives are not permanent. Everything dies and then if we were good and were baptized we “go to a better place.”
So, I was 10 years old when my best friend died. I have to mention that I was with her at the time because otherwise I fear people wonder why I still grieve. After all, she was “just a friend” (no such thing but that’s a rant for another day).
Her death sent me reeling. From the moment I felt the 4 wheeler begin to tip, to waking up underneath it, the trip to the hospital and the waiting room- I was sure there was no way my friend could really die. The doctors would work their magic on her and she would recover and we would go back to playing just like always. You see, I had grown up with everyone around me saying, “It always happens to someone else.” And if that were true my friend couldn’t possibly die.
I was “someone else.”
Suddenly I was hearing people say things like “everything happens for a reason,” “she was an angel and God needed her back,” and “maybe it would have been worse if she lived.” None of these phrases are ever comforting to someone who’s grieving. I kept my mouth shut though because I didn’t think I was allowed to grieve. After all, my friend was “just a friend” and I’d also been raised hearing “don’t complain, there are people who have it worse than you.”
So what did I do instead? I buried my grief as deep as I could. It popped up from time to time but for the most part I was able to ignore it.
It erupted when I was 18 and forced to graduate high school without my best friend.
My mom still thinks that the “going to a better place” speech is an adequate way to explain death to children. For my siblings and I it was, up to a point. We understood that death was permanent but grief was another thing. A combination of familial habits and growing up in the Scandinavian Midwest meant a stoicism when it came to anything taboo or uncomfortable.
Sir Terry Pratchett (#speakhisname) wrote a series of books set on the Discworld. They were very influential to me when I first started to truly sort through my grief. One scene in particular seems very appropriate here:
(On Death giving a child a real sword)
“You can’t give her that!” she screamed. “It’s not safe.”
IT’S A SWORD, said the Hogfather (Death) THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.
“She’s a child!” shouted Crumley.
“What if she cuts herself?”
THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.
Death (dressed as the Hogfather) does eventually turn the sword into a wooden toy but there’s something to be found in this interaction on how to discuss death (with a lower case “d”) with children.
The current literature states that when discussing death with children their age group should be taken into account but one should also be blunt. Now, it’s all well and good to say that but it’s an entirely other thing to actually do it. Since death is still quite taboo, many adults would prefer to shield children from it, just like the humans in the above interaction wanted to shield the little girl from playing with a real sword.
I’m not saying we should go around handing out “swords” to children but whether we want them to or not, children will learn about death. And they can either do it with someone to guide them or they’ll have to go through it alone.