Why is it taboo to talk about dying? And how can we talk to our kids about it?
by Amy Bell
Death is a fact of life. But it’s one that many people would love to avoid talking about at all costs.
Maybe it’s superstition: somehow, if we don’t speak of it, it won’t affect us. But death is inescapable.
So how do we prepare our kids to confront loss?
‘We are a death-denying society’
Christa Ovenell is working hard to change the dialogue and attitudes around death.
She’s an end-of-life educator and created the Vancouver-based organization Death’s Apprentice as a way to help people and families openly prepare for death and accept it as a natural progression of life. But it’s a hard switch to flip in a society that holds youth and vitality in such high regard.
“Think about, for example, in Mexico, where we would have a weeklong celebration for the Day of the Dead, that we would actually go and make our dead a part of our life,” says Ovenell.
“We don’t do that here. Because we are a death-denying society. And that’s what makes it so hard.”
Use straightforward language
The death of a loved one can be incredibly difficult, but for kids it can be especially confusing.
You could throw on an endless loop of Disney movies where someone’s mother always seems to be dying, or you could simply talk about death — and how it’s a completely natural part of life — before big emotions become attached to it.
Ovenell wants death to be normalized and openly discussed from an early age, just as we’ve become more open to talking about sexual health and addiction, for example.
A good start is using straightforward language, “the way we do in other tough or difficult conversations,” she says.
“Real words like, ‘someone died,’ or, ‘the cat died.’ Just normalizing it, making it just part of what kids hear, instead of funny things like, ‘Grandpa is resting,’ or, ‘so-and-so has passed.'”
Openness toward death needs to extend to all ways in which life can end. There are no “good” or “noble” ways people die. Whether from suicide or an overdose, everyone’s life has meaning and should be mourned when it ends.
Once someone a child knows dies, it can be difficult for a parent to help them process their feelings while grieving themselves. Grief is not a linear process and it raises many emotions.
Local mom Megan Cindric says the recent and sudden loss of her father has deeply affected her and her twin daughters, Fiona and Lily. Cindric wants to make sure her daughters know however they choose to remember their grandfather is valid, and that she’s just as affected by the loss.
“I am still sad every single day, and so I think it’s completely normal that Fiona is sad every day,” says Cindric.
“When she does get sad I tell her that I understand because I’m sad every day, too. And this is very normal because we loved Grandpa and we still love Grandpa.”
Cindric found both her girls understood their grandfather’s passing once she explained that he was more than just his body, and that would never change.
“I told them … when his body just couldn’t live any more, I could tell that he was different. I could tell that all of the things that made him Grandpa — his energy and his love and his spirit — I could tell that it was gone.
“I could tell that his body had stopped but all of his ‘Grandpa-ness’ had gone somewhere else,” she says.
Religion can bring many people comfort when it comes to confronting the afterlife, but some find solace elsewhere.
Cindric says she was recently in the garden her father had lovingly tended for years when a little green frog came and sat on the colander she was holding. When she told her girls about it, Cindric says they all agreed on one thing: “Fiona said, ‘I think that was Grandpa,’ and I said, ‘I kind of thought it was him, too.'”
There are two things in life we all experience without fail: being born and dying. While one event is celebrated, the other we spend our lives trying to outrun.
But like many topics that have made us uncomfortable in the past, if we push through that discomfort and openly discuss them with our kids, we take their fearful power away.
No matter who we’ve lost, their lives have affected us for the better — and death can’t ever lessen that.
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