Conflict is an opportunity to grow and learn; we can change our perception of conflict and change the skills we use to respond to conflict in our lives (and with our children). – Chrystine Trooien
Our Challenging Brains
My children have challenged me in ways I never knew possible. They help me to grow as a person and extend empathy and selflessness beyond themselves, to all humanity. One challenge that I knew we would face together is the topic of death and dying. Before my children came to me with questions and worries about death, I had done my best to prepare myself for how our conversation might go. I read Dale McGowan’s book on secular parenting “Raising Freethinkers“. Dale’s book touches on the topic of addressing death with children in a secular light.
For most people, it can be nearly impossible for the brain to imagine what it would be like for itself to not exists. Your brain has only ever experienced it’s own existence. For a child, this exercise is nearly impossible. They live in their own heads and bodies, and their experience is predisposition to believe that the mind outlives the body. This may explain why so many religions have been born from the minds of humankind.
When they ask about death
When my oldest was 4, he began to notice that sometimes animals die, bugs die, and plants die. He asked me about this at times, and my reply was to notice these things with him and to acknowledge that all living things have a beginning and an end. Later he asked what happened to the animals after they died. I told him that their bodies decompose and become part of the circle of life again. At some point he asked about people, and our discussion about how people’s bodies also decompose and become trees, flowers, etc, seemed to satisfy him for a great length of time.
Somewhere in his 5th year, the concerns about where his mind, the essence of who he is, goes when he dies, became what seemed like a threat to his happiness. He was distraught and in tears when these discussions would arise. He didn’t want mommy and daddy to die, ever, and he didn’t want to die and be gone forever. My previous discussion thread no longer satisfied and the tears and sobs would continue. My heart ached for him. I could see in these moments how easy it would be to promise a heavenly place where there is no worry or trouble. Obviously I couldn’t promise such fantasies.
Feeling Our Emotions
Instead of offering empty promises and taking away my child’s emotion, I acknowledged his sadness and let him know that I felt the same way. Too often as parents we desire to take away the strong emotions that our children feel, especially in times of sadness, grief, and anger. Allowing my child to feel these strong emotions in a safe environment with support and guidance was a gift.
After a few of these encounters with the topic of death on a high emotional level, I felt that a stronger resolution to the story of death was needed for my child. I also needed to provide my child with something he could do to combat death, instead of leaving him feeling helpless. Religion is definitely an answer that soothes the pain of pondering death, but empty promises can be more damaging to the psyche in the long run.
Science that Soothes
I realized that science can be just as soothing of an answer, with the benefit of truth. With all the research and breakthroughs in longevity science these days, it is actually possible that my children could benefit from this science and perhaps take part in it’s discovery. I explained to my child in simple terms about the science of longevity and how he could possibly benefit from this science and also participate in studying longevity and ways to help people extend their healthspan and lifespan. The smile and laughter that broke through the heavy tears and sobs was such a relief. He asked so many questions and became intensely interested in understanding the types of breakthroughs and science of longevity. He was no longer helpless, there was something that could be done.
To help my child understand the length of his lifespan, I have also used an abacus to demonstrate years. Each bead represents one year. We count the beads that represent his age, then my age, then grandma’s age, then great grandma’s age, then how long some people have lived (100+). This visual helps represent how much life there is left to live, and that a natural death is very, very far away for a child.
Another thread I have taken in these discussions is what we can do in our lifestyle choices to be healthy and strong: exercise, eating vegan, and finding paths that bring us happiness.
The Star Child
I also found a narrative that spoke to my child and was still in alignment with reality. Because the matter in our bodies was once the stuff of stars, I turned this into a story, borrowing tale from the book Star Child by Claire Nivola. My tale follows something similar to this: “We were all once stars and the star matter came together to form our bodies and minds in our mother’s womb. When we are done living our long life, doing many things, our bodies become old and die. Then our bodies turn back into the stuff of stars.” It is a more elaborate explanation than the one that satisfied my child at age 4, but it extends the story to before and after our lifespan.
Remember to take these emotional moments to talk about empathy with your child. Empathy for other animals, caring for other people, and taking care of the earth. Discussions about death can be wonderful brain exercises for a child. How we guide the discussion can open their minds and hearts to grow in love for themselves, this awesome world, and their time here.