Thursday, 2 August 2012

Talking about Death

Many people seem to feel uncomfortable talking about death. When it comes to children they feel even worse. Many families that I come across seem to want to protect their children from the knowledge of death, from the sadness and worry. So they avoid the topic all together or give the children a brush off statement that gives them no context or understanding at all.

What ever you believe happens after death is your business and I do not/ will not judge your beliefs in anyway.

2 years ago my beautiful and very grand Grandfather died. He lived to a ripe old age. Orlando was 3 at the time and Matilda just 6 months old. 

The finality of death is something that is hard for children to grasp. If we don't talk to them about it, then how can we expect them to understand?

It got me thinking... why do we hide death from children? We don't hide birth from them, so why would we hide death? If birth can be a celebration then can't death also? It is part of life, part of all of our lives. Children need to understand death the same way they need to understand the rest of the world.

We made the decision at that time to be honest and open with Orlando, to talk frankly with him, tell him what we felt he needed to know and then answer the questions he wanted answered. 

We talked to him about the fact that Grandpa Bruce (As Orlando called his great grandfather) had got very old and that as people start to get old their bodies start to break. That as their bodies begin to stop working, they can start to forget things, or have trouble walking around or standing up. That they don't feel strong any more (which is why he needed a walking stick). Then when lots of things in their bodies stop working, eventually all of the parts get broken, that their heart stops beating and their brain stops working and then when this happens they die. They stop breathing and talking.

Grandpa Bruce's body had stopped working and he had died. This meant that we couldn't talk with him any more. Or visit him at his house. That this is how he was going to be forever and that he wasn't going to come back alive. It was like his batteries had run out and couldn't be replaced.

Orlando likened it to what we had said about our chicken when it had died. That it was going back to the earth to turn into soil and grow food for chickens to eat and grow new chickens in eggs.

We talked about going to the funeral. That it was a place that we would go to say good bye. That people that he loved would be there, like Grandma, his cousins, his Great Aunts and his beloved Aunty. We let him know that these people who he usually laughs and plays with, would most likely be feeling sad and that they might be crying. This wasn't because they were hurt it was because they were going to miss Grandpa Bruce. Grandpa Bruce was safe. He wasn't hurting any more. He was happy and peaceful. People's tears were because they were going to miss him, because they didn't get to see him any more, and because they love him. We told Orlando that Grandpa Bruce was going to be in a special box called a coffin.

Orlando took all of this in. He listened. He loved. He cared. He gave me cuddles when I was sad and told me that "If I wanted to talk to grandpa then maybe I could talk to him instead". 

He handled the funeral really well. He looked rather gorgeous. He got a little nervous of the coffin but hey so did I!

A couple of days after, when we were back home, Orlando brought me a beautiful sparkly star shaped box. He was holding it very carefully. He came up and said in a whisper quiet voice "Mum, I have a beautiful and very special thing inside my box!" I responded "What's in there?" he opened it up and said "Grandpa Bruce! He's died but he is okay" (a spiky haired red troll doll). A friend, felt that this was rather morbid and that it was a little strange. To me, it showed that Orlando was experimenting with his new found understandings.

We felt happy that we had be honest, Orlando was by no means traumatised but instead felt the specialness of the person that had passed.

It wasn't until last week that I realised just how happy I was with how we had approached this.

We were in the car listening to a song on the iPod that was singing about something being buried. Orlando asked what was being buried and when I told him it was a solider he asked why. We got to talking about the fact that when people die they either get buried and have a special stone with their name on it or they get turned to ash and scattered somewhere special. He asked (2 years on from our previous discussions) what did Grandpa Bruce want. I told him that he got turned to ash and that coincidentally this weekend we were going to go with all of our family to scatter the ashes in the water at Glebe.

Orlando had many questions. He wanted to know where the ashes were now, what size the box is, how much ash there was, what colour it might be... He was not traumatised, but matter of fact. 

He then came back a few days later telling me that when Grandma helps him make the little boats, he wants to put his ash in the boat and make a space for the candle and light the candle. Then he will float it in the water.

I hadn't considered him touching the ash... or my self for that matter. We are just going to be a part of the ceremony. But the fact that he is okay with it, makes me feel that death is not a scary thing for him. It isn't taboo to talk about. He understands it and feels okay about it. For a 5 year old I feel really good about this.

Death is a part of life. 
Orlando understands this 
and I feel really good about that.



  1. My dear daughter you continue to warm my heart with your relationship with life and you presentation of wholistic living through this blog, yet again i thank you
    your mamma xoxoxoxox

  2. I like your perspective on this. for me its always seemed to make sense that death is just another part of life that we need to help our kids understand (in age appropriate terms of course), and the best way of doing this is by being upfront and answering any questions they have about it. from my experience kids seem to find things scarier if we try to hide them from them. they're pretty good at picking up on our anxieties about things, and I think they appreciate it when we pay them the compliment of being honest with them. death is something that they encounter in small ways in the world around them anyway - dead bugs, chooks, kangaroos by the side of the road etc. so it's hard to pretend its not there. sounds like it will be a great family get-together on the weekend - hope its a really special time.

  3. I have been watching sky burial videos on youtube and the children are brought up with death from the beginning wheras a lot of us adults cannot even face it.

    If you can let him know that one of his Great Aunts who had lived with Grandpa Bruce has been looking after the box of ash. It is about 3 kilos heavy. She has had it in a bigger box with papers and photos of people who used to be alive too. It is a sort of plastic box so she is covering it with some gold paper and putting it in an old esky that has been in the family for years. Then she is going to put a Chinese Dragon puppet on top of the box with Grandpa Bruce's ashes in and close the lid. Then she is going to have it on a trolley so that it can be wheeled from where the family meet, under the huge big tree that could be the one on his mum's facebook page, round to a jetty that is lots of planks of wood reaching out into the water so that people can get on boats.

    There will be quite a few people there and then a water taxi will come and pick some of the people up while others make boats. Or pick everyone up and some people will make boats in the taxi. At first there was going to be one little boat and indeed all around the jetty are boats but it is important for Grandpa Bruce that his box of ashes is on the Yellow Water Taxi with his family and that that taxi knows what is going to happen.

    Before the box and the people get on the boat the Great Aunt that lived with Grandpa Bruce is going to open the big box that used to be an old esky and let the dragon out. While the dragon normally likes to eat healthy lettuce, this time the dragon has a few packets of different lollies that are from England, where another one of his Great Aunts live. The dragon cant really eat the lollies because he is a paper dragon and the lollies are real lollies, but the lollies can go into Grandma's boats with the candle and sail out to be with the ashes in the big water with the little waves that go out to be big sea.

    But the Great Aunt that lived with his Grandpa Bruce wants at least one of the lollies after the paper dragon has pretended to eat it. And also there is a lolly for another Great Aunt that lives in Canberra and the Great Aunt that lived with Grandpa Bruce hopes that Orlando can take this lolly back for her and her family.

    Lots of love