In the aftermath of the elementary school shooting in Connecticut I have read many blogs on the discussion about how best to explain death to a child. Some parents elected to explain to their child that the children who had died were in heaven with Jesus, a decision which has drawn criticisim from the nonreligious.
One atheist mother commented that she had explained the death of a hamster to her child by saying that the body of the hamster returns to the earth and fertilizes flowers which grow as new life. I wonder how well a child reasons that. A small child that has not been introduced to the concept of death may still know that it is something terrible and unpleasant. I speak from my own experience.
When I was five years old I was taken to the funeral of an uncle who had died from cancer. Years later I can remember standing in the funeral home staring at the still body in the casket and noting that his skin appeared orange. My mother must have sensed my discomfort. She leaned down and whispered “he’s just sleeping.” I know she intended to comfort me but it was the worst possible thing that she could have said to me.
Even at five, I had a sense of the horrific finality of death. I would later learn about the burial process but what I instinctively knew was that death was bad, very, very bad. My five year old logic took my mother’s words and drew from them that if I fell asleep I could turn orange and die. I remember leaving my bed at night and standing at the foot of my parent’s bed, afraid to sleep and unwilling to let them know how scared I was. Eventually I learned that sleeping did not ensue death. But this experience caused me a lifetime fear of death and avoidance of funerals.
My experience is that a small child has difficulty understanding the concept of mortality. Some will say that my mother should have just told me the truth. But I am not sure it would have mattered in helping me to come to terms with death. Around me I saw sorrow and at the cemetery I saw the casket above the ground. Even at five I knew the body was going into the ground which was dark and scary. Explaining that my uncle had died would not have given me much comfort even if my mother had told me that his body would fertilize flowers and grow new life. What I would have reasoned is that I didn’t want to be fertilizer and turn into flowers. I wanted to be alive, playing with my friends and my toys, safe in the midst of my parents and family.
I remember asking my grandmother what happened when we were put into the ground. She hugged me and told me that only the body was in the ground, but the spirit – the “me” I knew- wasn’t in the ground but in the heavens with the angels and the lord. She told me that I was made of flesh and spirit and the spirit never died, and in the heavens all the spirits of everyone that I loved and who loved me would be together.
That was comforting. It eased my fear. Perhaps because as children we are naturally drawn to the mystical and magical. Even being told that the spirit was eternal did not abate my fear of death, but it helped me to manage it. In my own case, I am thankful that my grandmother was a religious woman who explained death to me in a way that I could somewhat cope with it. I needed a magical explanation of death at that time, not a reality that I could not comprehend.
Parents know their children better than anyone else. But even so, my mother did not realize that I was too young to distinguish death from sleeping, and I am glad that my grandmother believed in an afterlife which allowed my five year old being to believe it too.