child.jpg“He’s Only a child. He wouldn’t understand”. This statement is the most important mistake made in child-rearing. Children have a much higher capacity for understanding than we think. Children are just as curious and inquisitive about death as they are about life. They try to understand it… For a long time the fields of psychology and psychiatry held that children did not have a concept of death. This is no longer the case. Children do have a concept of death. Because it is impossible for children to avoid death. They see it all around them. A relative’s death, a death in their family, a dying flower, the death of a fly and many other events force a child to ask “what happened to this creature”?

Parents usually get very nervous when asked this question. There are two basic paths we can take in this situation. We can kill death, destroy it, obliterate it from our lives. Or we can analyse it, try to give it meaning. The first possibility is impossible. If a parent has not been able to put death in its proper place themselves, if they haven’t been able to give any meaning to it, if they themselves feel terrified and worried in the face of death, and live as if it doesn’t exist, then they will pass this onto their children. They will respond to their children’s questions about death by negating it.

This will harm the psychology of the child by allowing misconceptions about death to develop and will awaken a fear of death in the child.

How should the family behave when there is a death in the family- be it mother, father, aunt, brother, sister, grandmother or grandfather? In this situation there are certain types of behaviour which should be avoided and certain ones that should be followed.

What to avoid

(1) “He didn’t die, he’s gone to another place. He’ll be back”. This is a very common mistake made by parents. They think that telling the child that the person has died will hurt them deeply and so they tell them that they didn’t die, that they went somewhere else, and that they’ll be back. But this is more hurtful to the child. The following questions appear in the child’s mind: “Why did they go somewhere else when I need them so much and why aren’t they coming back? Maybe they don’t love me anymore, don’t care about me anymore and that’s why they’re not coming back.”

(2) When children come face to face with death- this may be the death of a butterfly or the death of a friend- they wonder whether they are going to die as well and ask their mother and father this question. Mother and father get very anxious on being asked this question and answer in the following manner: ” my baby, you are never going to die”. This they do in order to avoid hurting their children, but they unknowingly misuse their compassion in so doing. This statement makes the child feel powerless in the face of death. Because the thought that “I’m never going to die” is contradicted throughout the child’s life and with every contradiction the child faces deep great disappointment.

What to do

(1) Don’t lie. We have to realise that children really do have a higher capacity for understanding than we think. This applies to death also. Death can and should be explained to children in a manner appropriate to their age. No child asking after his mother who has died will swallow the following answer: “your mum will be back. She’s gone somewhere else”. Because the child knows that something is up. It is obvious from the actions of the people around him. He can feel that a death has taken place. Keeping death from a child causes the following thought to arise in the child’s mind: “Death is bad. It must be since they’re trying to hide it from me. If it wasn’t a bad and frightful thing they wouldn’t try to keep it from me.”

(2) The One who gives life is also The One who gives death. Life is a miracle. Man has been created from nothing. When a person adds two years to the number of years they have lived and then goes back that many years in time they will find that they didn’t exist at this time. Man has been created from nothing and brought to this world. Directing their attention to the world around them and talking about the miracle of life, and telling children that they are not alone will reinforce the feeling that there is Someone Who cares for them, and Who fulfils their needs, who is their Master. Events around us- rain, the flight of a butterfly, the rising of the sun, our falling asleep and our awakening, the things we eat, all manner of fruits … in short everything- is a miracle of our Creator and is the way in which our Creator shows His love for us. He is The One to give life and so He is The Master of life. He can take back the life that he has given to us. We have no right to protest. Objections to death arise from our assuming possession of our own lives. If we realize and accept that life has been given to us by The Creator and is a miracle, then we can accept that death is also given by Him and is also a miracle. Explaining death with life will allow the child to appreciate the value of his life more.

(3) Talk about the grave. The grave is what makes death appear cold to us. We are frightened by thoughts of being there alone, of having the earth piled on top of us and not being able to breathe. Different examples can be given to children to overcome this image. At this point, I would especially like to tell you about an example I saw in a film once. In the movie, the youngest of three brothers gets sick and is about to die. His brothers ask their father about what’s going to happen to their little brother, about what death and the grave is. The father puts on a glove. He moves his fingers and touches the furniture. Then he takes the glove off and places it on the table. The glove is left lifeless on the table. But the father’s fingers still have the ability to move. Here the glove represents the human corpse and the fingers represent the soul. The body and the soul are separated at the point of death. The body loses its life. It doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t hear, it doesn’t feel the cold or the heat. The soul however is taken to the spirit world and continues to live on. This reality brightens up the picture of the grave.

(4) As a last point, I am changing the above title. The title should read “explaining death to ourselves” not to our children. We can only explain concepts to children that we ourselves are comfortable with, that we aren’t afraid of and that we have a proper understanding of. Children are ready to accept death. It is more so us adults who are uncomfortable with it.

Dr. Mustafa Ulusoy / Psychiatrist