This post is dedicated to Lola Nenette.
Talking about death has never been easy. It usually feels like a taboo topic. We tend to avoid discussing it even if it’s a reality all of us cannot escape.
Talking about death to children is even trickier. We like to protect their innocence, afraid of messing things up for them. We are afraid that they might not understand us, scared that it might scar them. Maybe even afraid that we cannot fully explain life and death to them as we try to process our own grief.
I don’t like to sugarcoat things to Mateo, yet I found myself almost doing that when his grandmother died. I did not want to let him see her lying in the casket. It might scare him, I thought. He would certainly ask questions that I honestly did not know how to answer. Would he feel sad? Would he grieve? How would a four-year old process all these information and emotions?
His dad, Reymond, had a different thought. He let Mateo look at his grandmother. He wanted to see her, anyway. Then Reymond told him Lola would not be coming back. It took Mateo the whole afternoon and/or evening to process this thought. Because later that night before going to bed, he asked a lot of questions.
Mateo was trying to understand what his dad meant about Lola not coming back. As he was trying to put together his questions, my mind was scrambling what words to say to him in return. How can I say the hard truth that Lola died and she’s just not coming back?
Sometimes, the best way to answer a question is to respond with another question. Reymond and I did not discuss how to tell Mateo about his grandmother’s death. It was by probing Mateo’s thoughts that I learned about what they talked about earlier (Reymond stayed at the wake while Mateo and I went home for the night so I was ultimately tasked to answer the bedtime questions). I cannot remember exactly how our conversation went, but I got a feel of what he wanted to know based on the questions and thoughts that he was telling me.
To sum up, here’s what we have discussed:
- Lola’s not coming back, but she’ll stay in our hearts. We’ll always love her and keep her memories with us.
- Lola’s sleeping there (at the wake) and dad’s keeping her company. We’ll visit her there until she goes to her new home.
- She’ll be happy in her new home. She’s going to her new home and not come back to her house, but she’ll always love us.
- Mateo felt sad. He did not want lola to go to her new home. Yet somehow, he knew there was nothing he could do about it (of course he did not say this, but his body language showed resignation to what happened).
Tips on talking to young children about death
1. Ask questions and listen to them.
They’ll ask questions but sometimes you won’t have the right words to answer right away. Replying with another question is a good starting point. Try to figure out where they’re coming from.
2. Sometimes, you don’t have to explain everything.
Figure out what they really want to understand. “Why is she not coming back?” can mean “Does she not want to stay here with me?”
3. But you may have to repeat what you just said over and over again.
If he repeats his questions, you may simply have to rephrase your answer. Don’t drastically add new information, just a little piece at a time enough to satisfy his curiosity. It is already an overwhelming experience. Be gentle.
4. Help them put into words what they are feeling.
It’s easier to understand when they can talk about it.
5. Let them process their emotions their own way.
A child is still a person. If they want to stay quiet, allow them their peace. If they want to have fun, allow them to have fun (in an age-appropriate way, maintaining discipline suitable to the place).
The good thing about children is that they can move forward quite easily. Just let them be kids. Play can help them process their emotions. But respect their individuality. A child is still a person with thoughts and feelings.
I underestimated how my four-year old would react to this piece of reality. He’s coped well. Although sometimes I wonder if his Lola’s passing has something to with his sudden desire to live in the Philippines. Five weeks ago, his home was still Singapore. Barely two weeks back in the Philippines and he wanted to live there for good.
This is for Lola Nenette. Mateo loves you, and you’re an important part of his life. Thank you and we love you.