Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

DD and I made cakes earlier. We’d weighed out all the ingredients and were mixing them together when she paused, looked at me with a serious expression and asked The Question. The one we’ve been waiting for her to ask while fervently hoping she wouldn’t, not yet. The one about death.

DH and I knew this was going to come up at some point so we’d planned our approach. We’ve always felt that if a child is old enough to ask a question then they’re old enough to get a truthful answer, albeit somewhat simplified (this tactic was challenged recently when DD asked what a universe is. I struggled with that one a bit!). We had decided that we would explain death in a calm, factual manner, emphasising that it’s completely normal and nothing frightening. To start with it went something like this:

DD: Mummy, what does dying mean?
Me: (deep breath) Dying is what happens when your body stops working, stops breathing, and the the part of you that is you disappears.
DD: Oh. Did your Nana die?
Me: (relieved this is going so well) Yes, a long time ago.
DD: Did she know she died?
Me: Um…

I explained in a bit more detail, making sure to reassure her that dying doesn’t hurt (yeah I know, but she’s not quite 4) and that it’s just your body stopping.

DD: So dead people can’t move or talk or breathe?
Me: No, the bit that’s you inside your body isn’t there any more so the body can’t do any of those things.
DD: (indignantly) But dead people can talk, they talk with their hands!

At this point I took a moment to explain the difference between dead and deaf… Then DD asked if DH and I would die one day and I said yes but not until we were very old. After a moment’s thought she asked if she was going to die and when I said yes (but again, not until she’s very old) she burst into tears wailing “I don’t want to die!”.

This quickly passed though as soon she had another question – what happens to dead bodies? I took another deep breath and explained about coffins, funerals (all the person’s friends and family have a little party and tell stories about what the person was like) and burial. She even asked whether the body stayed in the ground forever so I briefly touched on the idea that the body would become part of the soil and help feed plants and insects. She quite liked this idea and decided it was time to resume our baking.

All the way through this conversation I kept thinking how much easier it would be (for both of us!) if I could tell her that when people die they go to heaven. But although my family are Christian DH and I are both atheists. The idea of heaven is a wonderfully comforting one but for us to tell her that it’s true would be hypocritical, despite part of me wishing that I could.

When DD gets round to asking what happens to the bit inside your body that is you, we’ll respond the way we do with all things relating to religion and atheism. We’ll tell her that different people believe different things, explain what the different beliefs are and let her make up her own mind as to what she thinks is true. We’ll do the same with DS when he’s old enough.

But for now DD seems satisfied with the answers I gave (although I feel like I’ve been put through the wringer!) and doesn’t appear to be worrying. I guess that’s the most important thing.

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Comments on: "Mummy, what does dying mean?" (14)

  1. I think you handled it really well.

    I’ve mentioned dying to Izzy in terms of animals – we’re meat eaters and it’s important (to me) she knows where her food comes from – but she’s never really asked questions beyond that. I don’t know how I’ll approach it when the time comes because she actually has an uncle she didn’t get to meet so I’ll probably have to work that in somehow. It’s one of those horrible parts of parenting I’m not looking forward to.

    • Yes, it’s definitely a hard conversation to have. In a way I’m glad though as DD has 2 great grandmothers who are in their 80s, at least of anything happens she will ready have some idea of what it means.

  2. tough conversation, you did well!

  3. I had the exact same dilemma last year. I ended up going into a little less detail than you did (although, I should add, I really liked what you said) and then mentioned that some people believe in heaven, but I don’t. She’s come over all religious at the mo, due to over zealous bible teachings at her PS, so she may be thinking along heaven lines. She occasionally bursts into tears about death, always more dramatically when it’s about her!

    • I think heaven is a really comforting idea, especially for a small child. I would have felt like a complete hypocrite telling DD that it exists though. If she decides to believe in it that’s fine – in a way it might be easier, it might make it an easier concept to grasp. Maybe.

  4. We had that conversation with our eldest, made slightly harder by the fact I’m athiest and OH is lapsed CofE. He had a bad dream a couple of days later but has since amazed us by being rational and balanced on the subject despite only being 6. Think you have definitely done the right thing and done it bravely and with principle.

  5. lucysg said:

    I gave exactly the same explanation as Sam when eldest was around the same age & she took it in exactly the same matter-of-fact way. Now she is 7 & also being drip-fed Christianity in her (non-faith) primary school. It irks me a little that they are brainwashing out the open-minded honesty that I’ve been nurturing in her for so long.

    • But we are a culturally Christian country so there will be a lot of it in schools. Tbh I don’t mind as long as teachers approach it from the “Some people believe this…” angle and don’t tell children that it is definitely true. That’s not on.

  6. Great post and a timely reminder that we need to start thinking about preparing for this question with our eldest.

  7. Lovely post, and I’m in the same boat – both atheists, so the usual ‘you go to heaven’ explanation wasn’t available. As you say, we’re predominantly a Christian society and even in non-denominational schools the story of Jesus is taught as fact by some, as you say, so my little one (who isn’t quite so little anymore (she’s 8)) did believe at the time. We never sought to discourage her, but we would explain to her why we didn’t believe and slowly but surely her declarations of faith became less and less frequent. So when the conversations about death happened I do remember feeling very guilty about that, because I had a sudden realisation that whereas before she’d have the comfort of knowing that, when someone she loved died, they’d be looking down on her from Heaven, now she’d no longer have that. I wondered for a long time just what it was that we’d taken from her. Now, a few years later, she’s developing into a (relatively – teenage angst and attitude don’t appear to be too far away) well adjusted young lady of course and my guilt has eased a little, but still… It came as a shock at the time just how guilty I felt.

    • Yes, I must admit that I wonder if we’re depriving DD of something that would comfort her. Atm she seems fine with the idea of death but no-one close to her has died recently so it’s all fairly abstract. Thank you so much for commenting, it was interesting to read.

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