Yesterday evening I snuggled down on the sofa with my children (the boy who is 9 and the girl who is 6) to watch a nature programme before their bedtime. It was about whether animals experience love. This should be nice, I thought, animals getting on with each other, snuggling together much as I was with my cubs. And we were hooked. But as the animals’ love for one another quickly became embodied in the production of baby animals, I started to brace myself for the question; y’know the ‘how do they make babies’ one. The girl had already caught me off-guard earlier in the week when she asked me how mummies get babies out of their tummies. So, I became a little preoccupied about my answer (whilst anxiously looking to the door to see if Daddy might come in soon to help) should the question be asked.
What happened next, though, I was totally unprepared for.
The girl suddenly burst into tears, burying her head into my chest and sobbing. “What on earth’s the matter sweetheart?” I asked – puzzled momentarily as to why baby-making should cause tears. “I want to live forever,” came the tearful reply. I took a moment to re-adjust from where my head had taken me (to a place of questioning that didn’t exist) to where my daughter actually was. She was frightened. “Oh sweetie,” was all I could manage at first as I bundled her close to me. “You’re going to live for a good long time yet,” I tried to reassure her. “When you die, mummy, do you turn into a statue?” she asked. “No darling, you don’t turn into a statue,” I said to her. “So what happens when you die?”, her tears starting to fall a little slower now. “Well, I don’t know for sure – no-one does – it depends on what you believe really. I think your soul goes to a really happy place and you meet up with your friends or family who might have died before you and you are all very happy together.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “What’s your soul?” I started to falter as I told her that her soul was what made her who she is; a great singer, a beautiful dancer, funny, different from every single other person ever. She absorbed it for a moment and then, as young children who live in the moment do, she said “I’m going to wear my pink hair band when Jonny comes to play.” That was it; she was satisfied. Nothing more needed to be said.
I let out a long breath. I had not been ready for that. I felt inadequate. I should have had better answers to her questions, I should have been more reassuring.
Then I heard a stifled breath. I looked at the boy. He was in floods of tears now. “What’s wrong?” I asked him. “I’m scared. Everything that she said has made me feel like I’m going to die. I don’t want to die mummy, I don’t want to die. Ever. I’m scared.” And he looked scared. Suddenly he was just my tiny baby and was frightened. “I don’t want to die,” he said again, urging – almost pleading – with me to tell him he wasn’t going to. But I couldn’t. Obviously. We are all going to die. “You’ve got a super long life ahead of you, sweetheart, I know it feels strange to think of dying, and it makes you feel funny – it makes us all feel funny to think of it – but try to think about the good long life you have ahead of you,” I said. But for a 9 year old boy, who can think longer and harder about these things, this wasn’t enough. It deteriorated into a panic attack. I took him upstairs, we practised the deep breathing we do for his asthma. I asked him to tell me about the African Cup of Nations and finally distracted him enough to calm down.
A couple of years ago I wrote a bid for the charity I was working for about End of Life planning for the elderly. I felt so passionately that we should talk to people about how they wanted to be cared for at the end of their lives – as much as it is possible to have a good birth, it should also be possible to have a good death. But death in our society remains a huge taboo subject. No one really wants to talk about it because no one really wants to think about it ever happening to them. Children haven’t had this sort of conditioning yet – they simply ask questions about things as and when they occur to them. And I don’t ever want to stifle my children’s questions. Yet I felt I failed them last night. And I think the main reason that I feel that way is it tapped into that deep-set maternal instinct – that is they were scared of something that I couldn’t take away or tell them wasn’t going to happen.
I want to talk to the boy again about this. I want to be in a better place to answer his questions, address his fears, reassure him, make him feel safe that isn’t just – or rather in addition to – me telling him over again, as many times as he needs, that “You Are Safe”. So how do you talk to your children about death? As they grow older, and the finality of death begins to dawn on them, how do you help them navigate this? And how do we change society so that may be us adults, who might also feel a bit scared by the whole death thing, can talk about it too?