We don’t do death well in the west. It embarrasses us. Silences us. We aren’t sure how to talk about it or what to say. It’s up to the person doing the dying to speak for those who aren’t. So if they aren’t okay with it either, it’s like one enormous elephant. Stomping across the room.
When my mum was dying, she chose to believe she wasn’t. Decided she’d be the one to beat ludicrous odds and recover. We all went along with it too. I always thought it was because we wanted her to get better, but now I think it was just that none of us knew what to say. We have no language for illness. Or death. After a friend was diagnosed with cancer, she told me that only a couple of people had mentioned it to her, because nobody else knew what to say.
Unfortunately, Mum didn’t stop at just telling us she was going to live, she actually promised my daughter that she’d be around until she turned ten. That she’d take her to Disneyland like they’d always talked about, and things would be fine. So when they weren’t fine, when she went and died, it left a pretty pissed off seven-year-old who decided her nanna had lied to her. In Mum’s well-meaning attempts at protecting my child from the ugliness of death, all she’d done was give her false hope. And false hope might be fine for the person dying because it means they don’t have to have that horrible conversation, but it leaves a hell of a mess afterwards.
When Mum was moved into a palliative care ward, forcing all of us to stop pretending all would be fine, she decided it would be better for my children not to see her in hospital. She told me she didn’t want them going through the pain of seeing her so sick. I’m not sure that it was actually about them. Maybe she thought it was, but I think it was actually just too painful for her to see two people she loved so much, knowing she wouldn’t see them for much longer.
It meant, though, that they went from seeing her well enough to be walking and talking and laughing with them at home, to being days away from death. And the only reason they saw her at all in hospital towards the end was because I ignored her wishes and took them in. They knew they were saying goodbye and she was furious with me. I’ll never forget that steely glare she shot me, when she saw them in the doorway with all the crafted presents they’d made. I know it hurt her to see them that last time. My daughter sporting a new, very short haircut, and my son grabbing her hands. But for them, had they not at least seen her just that once, as sick as she was, they may never have understood her death. As it was, they were sort of robbed of the privilege of witnessing the stages of death where you adjust to seeing someone growing sicker. And that’s pretty hard to get your head around when you’re just a kid.
Mum died over a year ago now, but my daughter still grapples with the idea that she was shut out. She still doesn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to sit by her nanna’s bed day after day like I did. She feels like her nanna didn’t want her anymore. Surely this is a failure, not of love or death, but of our complete inability as a culture to understand the process of death and to make it accessible to our children, no matter what age.
My daughter, who is now nine, was incredibly close to her nanna. They spoke daily. Saw each three or four times a week and had her own prize bedroom in Nanna’s house. They went on holidays together. They had a relationship that was totally separate to my relationship with them, and they were as close as a parent and child. Watching my daughter grieve was one thing. That’s normal after someone dies. But watching her struggle to understand why Nanna had cut her off to protect her was something different altogether. The intricacies of those decisions are so adult and so difficult to explain to a child. When a child is sick the only people they want around them are the people they love, so it can’t possibly make sense to them that someone they love so much wouldn’t want them near.
Before my mum died, I would have believed that death and children don’t mix. But now, having journeyed through all the mess and muck and sadness that death throws up, and watching both my kids, even my little one, come out the other side, more capable emotionally than ever before, I’ve realised it’s not about protecting them, it’s about involving them. Maybe the old practice of seeing your dead grandparent in a coffin was not such a grotesque idea after all. Maybe it is important to stare death down, to see it as real and not pretend that it just happens when you’re old, or tell them (even as an atheist) that someone is heading off to heaven because it sounds palatable. Kids believe in fairies. Santa. The Easter Bunny. They can believe that people they love are still with them after death in ways adults never will. So why do we choose to cut them out when in many ways they are better than us at dealing with it all?
My son was only four when his nanna died. He was as close to her as my daughter, but he didn’t have quite the language to express how he felt. Instead he found a bird, a ‘Nanna’ bird, that he believed had come to live in our backyard to see all the things that Nanna would not be around to see. He would show the bird things. Feed it in the morning. Talk to it like it was an extra member of our family. And sure enough, fifteen months on, that bird has followed us, even though we are living in a different house. Stayed with us. Hung out while the kids have grown and changed and learned new tricks. Maybe it’s not even the same bird as that one he first saw just days after Nanna died, but whatever bird it is, for him it was the thing he needed to be okay.
Mum used to be adamant that funerals were no place for kids, that they should be shielded from death in every way. My kids were at her funeral. Front row. Sobbing. They cried and cried and cried. And met her old friends. And drank too much lemonade. And listened to people talk about how much they loved her. They belonged there. They owned that day like she was only theirs. And as sad as it was, a funeral is the place where you realise your grief is not alone. And kids deserve that too.
At my son’s kindergarten yesterday one of the chickens in the hatching box died. Instead of whisking it away before any of the children saw its dead body, the teachers decided to leave it there. They involved the kids (all of them four or five years old) in making death boxes, or coffins. Then they had a ceremony in the garden under the climbing tree. A couple of children wrote things on a little cross and poked it into the ground. Others scattered petals from their favourite flowers. And at the end of the session, when they would usually come together for a book, their teacher showed them a story about the cycle of life. And they talked about death. One little girl explained that everything has to die because we would be too crowded otherwise. Another explained that even books die because the paper gets so old that it crumples and falls apart. One of the children talked very earnestly about how babies can sometimes die, especially if they swallow batteries. And my son talked about being alive and that he too would die one day. Just like Nanna. It was just another conversation to be had. Nothing more. Nothing less. They weren’t embarrassed. Or shy. Or upset. They were just talking.
While I listened, tears in my eyes at their pragmatic and sweet responses, their usual battles to be heard, their hands sticking up urgently as they waited to speak, I was amazed at how articulate they were. How beautifully they expressed what they thought about death. How comfortable they were talking about it. And how much wiser and more insightful than adults they sounded.
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