Thursday, October 28, 2010

Teachable Moments: Death

Halloween is coming. I had a funny conversation at dinner recently about costumes that had to fit over snowsuits and frantic searches for replacement costumes when a cold front cancelled the Malibu Barbie costume planned for the balmy Texas weather . Was there ever a more bizarre holiday? We spend all year talking to our kids about stranger danger and good nutrition and then, on Halloween, we let them dress up in costumes and go out to knock on the doors of strangers to beg for candy. . .

Since Halloween is already weird and scary, this can be a great time to talk to your kids about death. Death is like sex - your kids are going to learn about it. If you don't teach them, someone else will and they may not teach it the way you would prefer. Children will encounter dead deer on the side of the road, and dead fish in the aquarium. Villains, heroes and other characters will die in fairy tales and on television. You can't avoid it so you'll have to talk about it. As a person of faith, I want my children to learn about death in the context of faith (as well as sex, money, the environment, relationships, politics and a host of other topics.) The worst time to talk about death is in the midst of grief and anguish when a death occurs. You cannot teach as clearly, and your child cannot learn as well, when circumstances are strained by loss.

The best time to talk about any tough subject is when it can be brought up naturally. So, use Halloween as a natural opportunity to visit a real cemetery with your child. Once there you can talk naturally about death, life after death, burial, cremation, the circle of life, and other related topics. Walk around; look for the oldest person, the youngest person, the oldest stone, and the newest grave. In a quiet setting like a cemetery or columbarium (where ashes are interred) your kid may feel free to ask about what is on his or her mind.

This may sound very artificial and strained to you – and it is! It was different in the past when death was a natural part of life. People died at home. People lived in the same places and knew everyone around them, and knew the circumstances of their deaths. Every church had a cemetery and every child knew the story of someone buried there. These days, the reality of human death is veiled in mystery; kids have very little real information or experience from which to draw conclusions. You, as the adult, have to be their bridge, even though you may have very little experience yourself. Look at your feelings and memories as you prepare for their questions. Do a little homework if you feel the need – hospice has lots of information for talking to children, and so do lots of websites and libraries. You may not be able to answer all their questions but you can assure them that, no matter what happens along the way, God will be with them on each and every step – even the very last one.

So, it’s a bit of a somber topic for the year’s weirdest holiday but what better time? And for those of you who hate half told stories – the Malibu Barbie costume was replaced with the ever ready princess costume: a bridesmaid dress from the ancient past and a dime store tiara saved the day. You just never know what you’ll need, or when, so it's a good idea to grab those opportunities for advance preparation!

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