Children are naturally inquisitive. They’re also naïve and innocent in the main. Yet they’re not ignorant and they’re not immune from the feelings and the anguish of others. The recent atrocities in Paris will probably not have escaped their notice, even if parents and carers have tried to prevent them from hearing or seeing the news.
Death is a part of life. It’s a painful and difficult part of life for any adult let alone a child, but children experience death – whether it’s the passing of an elderly relative, or the death of a much-loved pet, or even the news of more than 100 murders in a capital city not so far away from them.
And yet we rarely speak to them about death.
These past few days, with killings across the globe, have been a reminder – as if we needed it – of how unjust our world can be. There’s war, destruction, injustice, fear and calamity – both natural and man-made. We aren’t helping our children if we completely ignore these realities. We’re not helping them if we wrap them in cotton wool and pretend that this isn’t happening.
It’s their world too.
Until our world is a just one of liberty, equality and fraternity, then we have to prepare children for the injustices they will have to face, and we have to enable them to live in an unjust world. We have to accept and share with children that some things are inexplicable and contentious, allowing them to explain their own feelings when devastating problems occur – be they global, national or closer to home.
Having said that we do want to protect children from gratuitous and graphic accounts of murders. They don’t need to know the details, and quite frankly, neither do we. They don’t need to be scared into the false belief that they’re in imminent danger, and that death and destruction lurk round the next corner. Take the tragic case of Becky Watts, murdered by her brother. Who is going to benefit from the appalling details that sensationalise a real tragedy for real people?
Some people would argue that we should completely shield our children, and for our part we’re certainly not suggesting that they should sit in front of “News 24” to witness the graphic details of the murders that took place in Paris this weekend (or any violent murder for that matter) but they may need to know of their existence, that it happens – that life isn’t perfect.
If a child asks a question, then they probably want an answer. They’re not asking to test their parents or teachers. As we said, they’re naturally inquisitive, and in situations such as these, they may be asking because it’s a way of conveying their fears. To ignore that request is unfair.
As a parent or a teacher, if a child asks a question about what happened in Paris on Friday evening, we suggest you encourage them to talk about what they’ve already heard and seen on radio and TV and in newspapers, and encourage them to express their own feelings of sadness, shock, fear and so on. Encourage empathy.
If children already learn through a planned programme for PSHE then talking about sensitive issues such as death and terrorist attacks may be easier because they will have been trained to become more skilled in the art of talking and listening and sharing their feelings and knowing what different feelings are. It’s not good enough to have a token assembly or a one-off lesson to “pray for peace”. It’s all about being part of a planned programme for personal development where a series of lessons contributes to enabling a child to be socially and spiritually intelligent and giving them the skills and experience to express themselves – anguishes and all.
Last week we intended to write about talking to children about death.
There was an excellent programme about death on Radio 4 in which David Schneider talked to a palliative care consultant about how we can have a “good” death.
The programme isn’t intended for children but it may give you some ideas on how we can approach the subject, and might help with your own fears or anxieties about dying. One of the reasons we won’t talk about certain sensitive issues is because we haven’t come to terms with our own responses, our own feelings. We shy away because we don’t know how to deal with an issue, not because we are shielding children from a truth or reality.
As we have mentioned in previous posts, one of the best ways to talk to children about sensitive or difficult issues such as death is through a medium already familiar to children – story books.
There are some suggestions in the link below.
Two of our favourites are Michael Rosen’s “Sad Book” and Susan Varley’s “Badger’s Parting Gifts”.
The sensitivity of these authors is absolute.
Michael Rosen’s book talks about times when the author is sad. Sometimes it shows in his demeanour. Other times, he’s sad but he doesn’t convey it, even though he’s upset inside. That’s a reality known to us all isn’t it?
Within the book he offers advice to children in a meaningful way that they can understand.
“I’ve been trying to figure out ways of being sad that don’t hurt so much. Here are some of them: I tell myself that everyone has sad stuff. I’m not the only one. Maybe you have some too. Every day I try to do one thing I can be proud of. Then, when I go to bed, I think very, very, very hard about this one thing. I tell myself that being sad isn’t the same thing as being horrible. I’m sad, not bad. Every day, I try to do one thing that means I have a good time. It can be anything so long as it doesn’t make anyone else unhappy.”
There’s no shying away from the reality of sadness, which can sometimes come in the form of loss or bereavement but still has to be managed by young and old on a daily basis.
In a class, depending on how well you know your children, you could read this story and then give them the opportunity to talk about issues or problems that make them sad. You could then consider adding to Michael’s list of ways to be sad that “don’t hurt so much”.
At home, you can snuggle up with your child, read this story together as a way of explaining your how you feel when you’re sad or as a means of encouraging your child to talk to you about their sadness, especially if they have seen reports on the news or witnessed your own horror at the mass murder of innocent folk.
“Badger’s Parting Gifts” is more suitable for an expected death rather than dealing with complicated murder. Badger knows he is going to die and wants to leave a reminder of himself with his friends.
“Badger wasn’t afraid of death. Dying meant only that he would leave his body behind, and as his body didn’t work as well as had in days gone by, Badger wasn’t concerned about that. His only worry was how his friends would feel when he was gone.”
Susan Varley continues to explain how Badger dies with the analogy of a long tunnel.
“He no longer needed his walking stick, so he left it on the floor of the tunnel. . . . . . He felt himself turning head over paws, falling and tumbling, but nothing hurt.”
When his friends wake the next day, they firstly realise that Badger has died and secondly find the small gifts of memory that he’d left with his parting.
“Mole told about the time Badger had taught him how to cut out a chain of moles from a piece of folded paper. . . . . Frog recalled how Badger had helped him take his first slippery steps on the ice. . . . . . . . . Fox remembered how he could never knot his tie properly until Badger showed him how. . . . . . . . . . . . Each of the animals had a special memory of Badger – something he had taught them that they could now do extremely well. He had given them each a parting gift to treasure always. Using these gifts they would be able to help each other.”
This is a great way for children to consider legacies and how we help one another to learn. It’s a good way to show the positive side of death, for there is such a thing as celebrating a life departed.
Death, indeed any loss, is one of the hardest things we have to endure in life. It’s a difficult subject but it’s one that needs to be tackled in as sensitive a way as possible, and we have to remember that children are not immune to the world in which they live. We want them to live well and to enjoy their childhood but we all know that life is not a perpetual state of happiness, and every child experiences loss of some sort. It’s our duty to help them prepare for a reasonable and considered response.