Kids and Death: Scary Feelings Should Not Be Avoided

“I hate it when people die.”

One of my students had stayed after school today to make up some laboratory work. Her grandmother died last night. The other grandmother, who she visited in Korea in the fall, had died about a month ago. My student asked me whether it was ok to be angry at other people who are all of a sudden claiming to be her grandmother’s greatest friends, when these same people were nowhere to be found during her grandmother’s cancer. I told her that the one thing I had learned about death in my life, was that everyone responds to it in their own way. She and I spent the afternoon talking about death and dying.

“Where would I find information about where someone is buried?”

Just before the Christmas school break another student sat in my room trying to catch up on some social studies work. After some back and forth he finally shared that he had been thinking about the relationships he had developed with the elderly folks he worked with at a local nursing home. He said that he noticed that he would get close to one of the tenants and their family, and then they would die. And then the cycle would start over. This was the same student whose younger, special needs brother had died four years prior. He and I spent some time talking about death and dying.

Kids think about death. We shouldn’t protect them from those thoughts.

These two interactions made me think of my own kids. Their mother, my ex-wife, was first diagnosed with cancer in 2003 (six years into our marriage). A year prior to my learning of her affair, we learned her cancer had spread (9 years after the first diagnosis). My kids have lived in the specter of their mother’s death for many years.

I have been doing my best to talk to my kids about their mother’s health and potential death, especially recently as our dog is on the verge of passing as well. They think about it. They are afraid of it. And yet there is a part of me that feels like I need to protect them from those thoughts. As parents we try to do our best to protect our kids from feeling bad, from being hurt.

Part of it might also be cultural. My student told me today that her grandmother did not want to speak with her while she was dying. I told her that there is a possibility that her grandmother wanted to protect her from the pain of watching her die. Unfortunately by making the choice for my student, she also increased my student’s pain.

It reminded me of my father’s story. His father died when he was twelve back in Poland. His relatives shipped him off to the countryside while his father was dying. He never saw his father alive again. My father feels the pain of that loss and that choice that was made for him to this day, sixty years later.

Death and the dying are part of life. I truly believe that we need to help our children learn ways to manage the fears and anxieties that come along with it. Protecting them from those feelings, by enabling them to avoid those feelings, only hurts our children in the long run.

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