Friday, June 1, 2012

Explaining Death to Children

I've often pondered the concept of explaining death to Samantha.  She's got two things going against her - the fact that she's a young child, and the fact that she has an intellectual disability that makes understanding things, especially conceptual things that aren't tangible, much more difficult.  And I knew we would have to broach the subject sooner than later, with a 92-year-old great-grandmother with Alzheimer's, and, closer to her everyday life, a geriatric cat with multiple health issues. 

Gamie, my mother's mother, my grandmother, Sammi's great-grandmother, did pass away 2 months ago.  I didn't post about it then, as I didn't feel it was appropriate, but I mention it now because Samantha came to the funeral with us, but we didn't tell her where we were, or why we were there.  She wouldn't have understood, and we didn't want to upset her.  She had met Gamie numerous times, and I think she knew who she was, but I can't be sure.  I have to giggle, though, because between Gamie's Alzheimer's and Samantha's ID, I don't think either of them knew much more about each other than that each was a person the other had met in passing. 

But death remains a difficult idea to convey to a child.

Delilah, our geriatric, 3-legged cat with a raging thyroid issue, had to be put to sleep yesterday.  As I had posted previously, Samantha has become quite attached to the cats lately.  She tromps through the house on the hunt for them, calling them, searching under beds, behind doors.  She feeds them most nights.  She corners them and forces them to sit still as she pets and kisses them. 

When I got home from work yesterday evening, I knew it was time to say goodbye to Delilah.  Before putting her into the cat carrier so Steve could take her to the vet, I called Samantha over and let her pet and kiss her one more time, told her to say goodbye to her, and carefully explained that Delilah was very old and very sick, and that she would likely not be coming home with Daddy from the vet.  That when animals and people get very old and very sick, their bodies just stop working.  That the doctor would help her to go to sleep so she wouldn't wake up, but so she wouldn't feel sick anymore.  That she was going to heaven where she would be happy and have 4 legs again, and get to play with butterflies all day in the clouds. 

Sammi listened, and I'm not sure how much she got of it.  Sounding intrigued, like it was going to be a fun place to visit her, she said, "Really?  Delilah will be all better!" Actually,  her reaction was more like I'd just told her she was going to have a friend over for a playdate tomorrow.  But I do feel certain that she understood that Delilah wasn't coming back, and that she was in a better place. 

I told her that we were very sad, that it was okay to feel sad.  When she saw that I was crying, she put her arms around me, snuggled close, and said, "I love you mommy."  She knows.

Heaven is a tough concept, even for me.  The agnostic in me doesn't know if it exists, but likes the idea of heaven.  The mommy in me knows that it has to exist, that it's the right thing to say to my daughter, to help her understand.  We have to compromise our beliefs sometimes in the name of good parenting.  I'm not opposed to heaven as a concept Sammi grows up with believing - it's not necessarily a religious thing to me, but a coping mechanism, a way of putting things into perspective, and it's not something that's limited to children, like a belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.  Actually, as a coping mechanism is how I view religion in general (I'm not judging - I actually appreciate so much about it and know how much good it can do for some people!), but I certainly don't want to get into a theological discussion here.  Maybe one day, but not now.

I have to hand it to my husband.  I'm so grateful that he took Delilah lastnight.  It just wasn't appropriate for Samantha to go with us, and one of us needed to stay with her at home.  He spared me a very difficult task, and allowed me to have that talk with Samantha that I knew was coming.  Actually, I think that having gone through this with Delilah, it may be easier to explain to Samantha about Gamie.  The door has been opened, and I think she's learned something from this.    

For those of you who have been there already, what has worked for you in having this discussion with your child?

10 comments:

Anna Theurer said...

Becca, I am so sorry to hear about Delilah. {{HUGS}}

Anna said...

You did an awesome job. I am sorry for your family's loss and mow firsthand now hard it can be. Your post has gotten to me today. Out great Dane is 12 which is pretty old for a Dane. She and my daughters little dog are graces favorites. The Dane hasn't been doing well and I, the mommy person, just can't bear the thoughts of not having her. Much less how to discuss it with Grace. Then you add to the fact that our oldest daughter will be moving to Kansas the end of July and I am being strong. Knowing its what's best. Yet clueless as to how we are going to muddle through it. Our family has been through a lot the past few years so I am sure we will pull it off like we have each time. (we will be following the moving truck west to help unload and see with our own eyes -hoping that will help) hugs.

Rochelle said...

So sorry to hear about your gma and your cat. These kinds of talks are always hard with any kid but, sounds like the door is definitely open for her to understand.

Kelli said...

Awww, so sorry to hear. I can imagine this must be hard in so many ways. Thinking of you and sending hugs your way!

Chromosomally Enhanced said...

this is a tough subject...Max(6) is VERY interested in this subject and has been for quite some time...developmently children cannot completely understand mortality until age 7...so before this is like prepping them for the "real" harsh finality of life/death...we have been honest with Max...no fairy tales...no heaven...no lies...we are agnostic family...which means no stories or soft places for a child to land...I wanted to tell Max about mermaids like I was told as a child...but when we told him OUR truth...he accepted it willingly...and as if it really was not a big deal...since then..he asks about death and we discuss it with him openly...still comfortable just curious...not sure this is the "right" way...but it seems to work for us...Maddie will be raised and told the same way...even though I try to shelter her even more then I do Max..it is what Chad will insist...no fairy tales...just our truth...great post..smiles

ChaCHA online said...

You handled this so well, Becca. I haven't had to have this talk yet, and I hope that I can wait a while longer. I hope that you and Sammi both get what you need from the talk you had.

Jenny said...

Aw, so sorry about Delilah. I think you handled it beautifully Becca.

e.Beth said...

so sorry to hear about Delilah- and Gamie! has samantha asked about the cat since you had her put down? how's your other cat doing?

Becca said...

Thank you, Beth. Actually, yes, Sammi has talked about her a lot. She actually was "talking" to her on her cell phone this morning. I said who are you talking to? She said "Delilah." I asked her where Delilah was, and she said "In Heaven." She says she'll be all better and will come back, but doesn't seem too upset when I tell her that she won't be back. Other cat's okay, I think. He uncharacteristically pooped in the bathtub the other morning, though... Hope that's a one-off...

Jess said...

Ciena doesn't ask questions leading to these kinds of conversations but Evan, my 4-year old, certainly does! About once a month or so he asks a question or brings up a subject that leads to a conversation about the basics of human life: right and wrong, heaven or hell, bad guys and good guys. I always try to be honest and real and not sugar coat things in a way that taints the truth. He knows that there is a Heaven because the BIble talks about it. So I guess it's still a work in progress. But I just love having conversations with him about these things because he has some of the funniest comments! Once he told me to throw up God so he could help us with a problem (my tank was on empty and I didn't know where the next gas station was) and then eat Him back up so He would be back in my heart. lol How funny is that!