Talking about death

Talking about death

In the last few weeks, both national and international news has been dominated by the death of Queen Elizabeth ll.

At our school, students of all ages from three to 14 years of age have been fascinated by the plans for her majesty’s funeral and the pomp and ceremony surrounding it, whilst being equally enthralled by the future coronation of a new King.

The students had highlighted for them the natural succession of events of the Queen’s death leading to a new King. Lots of discussions were heard amongst the children as to how Queen Elizabeth’s death had led to a new King and how although her death was very sad and people were crying, it is also the time of a new beginning.

However, talking about death so openly and in a positive way is a rare thing to witness. As a parent, teacher and Head of School, I know it is a very sensitive subject and one that we, as both professionals and parents, struggle to know how to deal with.

Death as a subject is one that is often avoided. Many think that it will make children feel sad, worried or anxious. whereas research actually shows the opposite to be true. Openly talking about death in terms of real-life situations, in a natural and organic way, helps children to begin to understand the concept of death and, in fact, become less worried or anxious about it.

It is, therefore, how we deal with death in everyday life, and prepare our children about the confusing concept of life ending, that enables them to have the strategies to cope with death.

Talk about death as and when it occurs in your child’s life in whatever context and ensure that it is part of a normal conversation. It could be that a family pet has died, a tree or plant in the garden, or even a character in a cartoon or film.

Children from an early age do understand the concept of something living and not living. Indeed, these are words that preschool children hear as part of their ‘Understanding of the World’ lessons.

Look at life cycles: the life cycle of a butterfly is a very good example and can be seen in real life. If a character dies in a film such as ‘The Lion King’, the circle of life is very clear to both observe and quantify.

Be sensitive to the situation and answer any questions that your child asks you truthfully and in language that they can understand. How you answer a preschool child will be very different from your reply to a teenager.

Younger children tend to ask very straightforward questions, if any at all. Reassure your child that normally people die when they are very old, very sick or have an accident, and that going regularly to the doctor, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and keeping fit are all positive actions to live a full life.

Reassure them that you yourself intend to live a long life. For older children and teenagers, be honest and don’t use euphemisms. They may already have encountered death at close hand and could be scared and anxious. Reassure them, tell the truth and be there for them.

If you are crying or very upset, explain to them why you are feeling like that, and that it is normal behaviour. If they feel like crying, encourage them to express their feelings in whatever way that they wish. They may choose to write down their feelings to cope with the bereavement.

We know our own children best. How they react will influence how we respond.   Encourage them to ask questions and share their feelings, whilst, at the same time, talking about the positive memories shared with the deceased.

Do try to keep to regular routines in your daily lives. A degree of normality will be both reassuring and comforting. Remember that, as parents, we are not perfect and, more than likely, we will also have been bereaved by the same death that our child or children are experiencing. Relatives and close friends can be a wonderful support for you and your family at times of bereavement and, of course, there are bereavement councillors for additional outside support.

Death is not the opposite of life but a part of it.

By Penelope Best, Head of School,
Eupheus International School, Loulé