For a five year old, Benjamin is pretty clued up about death and grief. Just over two years ago, his baby sister, Luna, died. Since that moment – actually, even before we knew she was definitely going to die, he was a part of the story. Both of my parents have died, Dad when I was 20 and mum when I was 28 (I’m now 40). I have known about death and grief for a long time. I’ve had a total of five baby losses, three of which happened before losing Luna, I know a lot about this type of trauma. Right from the get go, as soon as we knew Luna was in for a fight for her life, we told Benjamin. I sensed that telling him the truth was the right thing to do. He was going to witness his parents not being their usual selves and he needed to know that it was alright, we still loved him and the reason for our upset wasn’t because of him. I think the fact that I had already experienced the death of both parents, I had an instinct that this event would be a major influence on Benjamin’s life. I sensed the potential of learning and growth and development for him. At the time I was mainly acting on instinct and feeling, I was listening to my heart.
When I delivered Luna, she was dead. Benjamin knows this, he came to meet and visit his sister in hospital. He knows Luna was very poorly and that sometimes doctors can’t fix very poorly or very injured people and they die. He knows that Luna was cremated, but that other people are buried. He knows what a cemetery is, what grave stones are and he likes me to tell him who is buried there, what their names are, were they a brother or sister? A mum or dad? We talk in normal tones as we pass churchyards, I don’t try to hush him. He gets a little confused, thinking that Luna is buried too and wants to know where her grave stone is and I just remind him, quite matter-of-factly that: ‘No, Luna doesn’t have a grave stone. Luna is in the little envelope on the window sill. She was cremated, so her ashes are with us still, her body wasn’t buried.’ and he just says, ‘oh yes, I know that.’. I’ve explained that when someone dies, they don’t feel pain anymore, there’s no more thinking or speaking. They don’t need to eat anymore, which means no more poo or wee either – that always gets laughs! Five year old’s love a bit of toilet humour!
Benjamin’s school knows that Luna died and when they are talking about families Benjamin talks about Luna. I note how they pull me aside when I collect him at the end of the day and in hushed tones tell me ‘He spoke about Luna today. We removed him from class and made sure he was okay, gave him a chance to talk about it. He seemed fine, so we let him go back to class.’ I just smile and say, ‘Yes, that sounds about right, he is fine.’ I want to ask: ‘Are you?’. Benjamin expresses his sadness that Luna died, that he misses her. Do I think he really does? Or is he mirroring what Charlie and I say and feel? Probably the latter, but that’s okay, it’s important anyway. Benjamin is constantly learning from us about death and grief and what is okay to say and feel…which is pretty much anything! I think it’s interesting that he gets removed from class, taken aside to discuss his grief, separated. It’s a subtle message, one that our society reinforces: grief is private. grief is private. grief is private. Is it a lost opportunity for the other children in the class? I think it is.
Luna’s death gave us the opportunity to teach Benjamin something very important, it was a chance to give Benjamin tools for life. Shape him into a more generous, empathetic, understanding and compassionate person. To be able to sit with another persons’ pain and just take it is a valuable and underrated skill to have. And you know what? Children have it innately. They don’t know to fear death or grief. They learn it from us adults. They pick up how we try to hide it and turn away from it. Don’t talk about it, don’t show emotion, ignore it. Children are very good reflectors of us. If we show them to stop being open, it’s bad, it’s scary, you can get hurt, guess what, they close up and become adults that react to death and grief in a destructive way and teach their children to do the same. We could learn a lot from children, if we gave them the space to be curious and fearless and didn’t become frightened by their natural curiosity.
Benjamin knows people can and do die. Lately though, our conversations around this have shifted to another gear. The other night (always at night, always) Benjamin asked me, for the first time, ‘Mummy, will you and me die one day?’. I’ve been caught off guard. Benjamin (all children) never gives us warning that his brain has just lept to a new place and he is about to make us feel very very uncomfortable! I answered (always) truthfully ‘Yes, we will. Everybody dies.’. Benjamin burst into tears immediately, ‘But I don’t want to DIE!’. I can feel my panic rising, but resist any urge to take back my words, they are the truth after all. What I do tell him though is that it won’t (probably) happen for a very very long time. He cries even louder. Then I hug him and tell him I love him. I let him cry for a few more seconds, then I ask him ‘Why are you crying? Why are you so upset about dying?’. I know. You’re reading this and thinking this is a ridiculous question! But we are adults, with adult hang-ups, children don’t have hang-ups, yet. His answer? ‘What will happen to all my cool toys? I won’t be able to play with them anymore! AND, you can’t have birthday parties anymore!’ (his birthday is coming up soon, it’s a hot topic in our household at the moment). Basically, life is more fun, death is boring! More tears, I tried to cuddle and kiss them away, but the only thing that worked was to talk about it. So we did. I told him that some people believe when you die, you get to go to the best party EVER. With all of your favourite things there: games, toys, bouncy castles, food and sweets and all of your favourite, most loved people (who have died too) are there with you – this is called Heaven. Here ensued questions about where Heaven is, does it really exist, etc. I was very honest in my answers. I don’t know if Heaven really exists or where exactly it is. I could see he was frustrated by my lack of knowledge, but also respected that I admitted that I didn’t know, not for sure. I told him that not knowing is part of the magic and mystery of death, that we don’t get to know until it’s our turn to die. We talked about growing old and then dying. To which he said ‘I want to be a baby again!’. His logic being that you’re at the start of life then, death a long way off. I explained that all babies grow up, become adults, live life, grow old and then die (never mind that it doesn’t always happen this way, one step at a time folks!). It’s natural and normal, we all die. All living things die. I then told him that some people believe that you do come back again after you die, to have a new life. LOTS of questions about how is this possible!? How do you get back inside a mummy’s tummy? We talked about a persons’ soul and what that might be. My answers of ‘I don’t know’ again used, but I did say I could try and find a book about it…my stock answer to all things I don’t know!
We talked and talked and talked. Earlier on in our conversation, after I’d just told him about the concept of Heaven, I asked him what he thought might happen after we die. He had a scrunched up face, he still wasn’t very happy about the prospect of having to leave all of his toys behind. I could see he wasn’t buying the Heaven story, ‘I think nothing happens, you just die.’. I didn’t try to correct him. It’s important that he can think whatever he likes about this strange concept of death, but after we talked and talked and talked some more, I could see he was loosening. His need for there to be something else was growing. So I made sure that I also told him that even if none of those other things happen, Heaven, reincarnation, whatever, what makes it okay when it’s your turn to die is that you have lived an open, honest and loving life. Did he understand me? Probably not exactly, but I’ve learnt that what I say to him is so so important. He just listened. These nuggets of information and knowledge lodge in his brain for future use and understanding. His understanding of death is constantly evolving and changing. He will continue to ask questions (at night, when I’m tired and least expecting it probably!) and he needs to know that we will answer him as honestly and truthfully as we can, we owe that to him. We won’t try to hush him and tell him ‘not to think about it’. We would be neglecting our duties to him if we didn’t tell him the truth. We would be perpetuating our hang-ups on to him (hang-ups we are slowly undoing). We even touched on the cycle of life, how when you die, your remains breakdown, into the earth and get made a part of the earth so that more things can grow and be nurtured by your body. Oh yes folks, no stone was unturned! This is what happens when you let you’re five year old have the floor with their questions! We ended our conversation with him asking me if cats and dogs die too. I said yes, ‘Along with birds, spiders, flies, trees, flowers, anything that is alive. Everything dies.’ he replied ‘And houses?’ ‘No, not houses. Houses aren’t alive are they?!’ and we laughed about this, like it was a little joke we’d made up…like he was just testing my truth telling. Maybe he was. He’s a smart, brave, loving little boy and I’m very proud of him.