We had another big death discussion a couple of weeks ago and it got me thinking about the things that Benjamin has asked or said about death over the last 3 years and how his understanding is growing and changing. I thought it may be helpful to others to see what sorts of things he comes out with and how I’ve tried to answer his questions.
- Which star is Luna?
- Luna is on the moon.
- How did Luna’s box get into the sky, and the pictures I made for her?
- Can you see Luna?
- Sometimes I can see Luna. Sometimes she is running just behind me, sometimes just in front.
- When I came to see Luna in the hospital, she was asleep and I watched TV on the iPad.
- It must have hurt Luna a lot if her heart wasn’t working properly.
- Why can’t God bring back Luna? He made the whole world!
Questions/comments like 1-3 made us realise that we were going to have to tell Benjamin the truth about Luna’s death. We had told him a story about Luna being very poorly and not being able to be born alive, so instead she was going to be a star in the sky like Twinkle, twinkle. It was a favourite song of his at the time (he was just over 2.5 years old) and it felt like a gentle way to explain what was happening. However, it did cause confusion. He knew she existed, because he came to meet her in hospital and he came with me to the funeral home to visit with her. He knew she was in that tiny box and, rightly so, he questioned how that gets to the sky! I was belittling his intelligence by continuing with the fabrication of Luna going up to be a star in the sky, so I told him the truth instead and apologised for lying to him. I did explain that looking at the stars and moon are a nice way to remember and think of Luna and that what I wanted most is for us never to forget her. He took it all in his stride, listen attentively and accepted what I had to say. From this point forward, we’ve always told him the truth when he’s asked us a question. Benjamin will wheel comment number 6 out every so often, I always correct him and tell him that Luna had died, she wasn’t asleep. Sometimes I wonder if he’s testing me to see if I’ll change my story about this, or maybe it’s that he would prefer if what he says is true, but I always gently correct him…it is true that he watched TV on the iPad – a treat and obviously something that has stuck!
The last question, number 8, really hit me hard. He was so wanting to have an answer to how we could bring Luna back, to make it better and get the sister he desperately would like to have to be here, and I had to tell him that it wasn’t possible. We both cried, a lot, during this conversation. I told him that we loved him and were so lucky and proud to have him, it was the only thing I could think to do to sooth us both. I told him how important it was for me to answer his questions truthfully, no matter that either of us may not want to hear the truth. We got through it. This question was part of the same conversation that comment number 5 and 7 came from. I hope Luna is with him and if Benjamin can see her somehow, that’s special. It was also very painful to hear though. These conversations, grief, there always seems to be a double-edged sword – pain and pleasure together. I had to explain that while Luna was in my tummy, she didn’t feel any pain, because my body was looking after her. Quite often these sorts of question lead to more questions about how the body works, what doctors can and can’t do to fix someone and reproduction. Yes, amongst the death chat, there is also the ‘where do babies come from?’ questions too! Lucky me!
Death and dying:
- If old people die first, and you’re old when you have cracks on your face, that means granny will die first, then you and daddy, then me.
- What happens when you die?
- What is a soul and where is it?
- When you die, that means you can’t eat or poop anymore!
Small children tend to say it like it is and comment number 1 is proof of this! Benjamin has been asking about the timeline of life/death and likes to have it explained again and again. I’ve had to explain that although Luna died as just a tiny baby, most people get to grow old before they die. This is tricky for me, as we have also lost babies to miscarriage (Benjamin doesn’t know about these others, a judgement I’m constantly evaluating) and both of my parents died young. I feel a bit of a fraud when I say this to him, like I’m trying to convince myself of this also! The thing is, it’s true. I’ve been unluckier than most in my experience of life in this way, but I need to keep this in check. Just because Luna died, doesn’t mean Benjamin will (young) and just because my parents died young, doesn’t mean I will.
Question 2 was one that I was dreading, but this is where the support of an organisation like Child Bereavement UK and my bereavement midwife really helped. Best advice I can give is answer the question as simply and clearly and truthfully as you are capable of. My answer was something a little like this:
‘I don’t know for sure what happens when you die, as it hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know that eventually you stop breathing and if anything was hurting, it stops hurting. It means that you no longer think, dream, eat, sleep, breathe, wee or poo. You can’t hear, feel or see anything anymore. The essence of who you really are isn’t your body, it’s your soul and that might go somewhere else, but your body stays here, on earth and is either buried or cremated.’ You’ve got to get the weeing and pooing thing in, children think it’s wildly hilarious and if you’re having a little giggle, it helps break the tension in both of you.
Burial and Cremation:
- What are all those stones with writing on?
- Are their bones in there too?
- What are ashes?
- What is cremation?
- I don’t want to be buried. I don’t like the dark and I don’t want worms and snails crawling all over me! I want to be turned into ash and stay here with you.
- What is this person’s name? Why is there lots of names on this stone?
- Why is that grave so small?
We approached burial quite soon after Luna died. Benjamin just started to notice churchyards more and started asking questions. He quite likes churchyards and if there is an opportunity to take a walk through one, he usually takes it. If we’re not in a particular hurry, we may stop at different headstones and I’ll read the names and any inscriptions out to him. It gives us space talk about death in a normal, everyday way. It shows him that death is all around us and that it’s okay. I usually take the opportunity to remind him that all living things die, whether it’s a person, a tree, a dog or a flea.
It also started the conversation, which I wasn’t expecting, about what he would want when he dies. He knows that Luna’s ashes are sitting on our windowsill in our bedroom and he’s decided he would want to stay with us in the house, so cremation is for him. I just accepted that this is what he wants and told him that of course he can stay with us. He can’t really imagine himself as a grown up or being old, I didn’t tell him that probably once he dies, we’ll have already died a long time before and we’ll no longer be here, in this house. He didn’t want or need to hear that, he just needed to hear that he would be with us. Which maybe he will be.
Benjamin first asked about cremation when he spotted Luna’s ashes in the little woven envelope and he wanted to see what was inside. I was frightened of telling him about cremation and tried to avoid answering his questions directly…kind of dancing around it for a bit, but then I relented, after our conversation about what happens when you die, and just told him: It’s a very, very hot fire that after someone has died, their body is put into and it burns it all down to ash. Then they sweep up the ashes and put them into a bag and box and give them to the persons family members to keep or scatter or bury somewhere. I reiterated that after you die, you cannot feel anything anymore, so none of this can hurt you. To my surprise, he was fine about this, I thought it may scare him, but it hasn’t seemed too. He responded with a ‘oh, just like in Cinderella, when she’s sweeping up the ashes from the fireplaces?’, yes, a bit like that…except she’s sweeping up wood ash, not people ash…just so we’re clear!
- What is heaven?
- Do you think there’s a heaven?
- What is reincarnation?
- Is reincarnation real?
We’re not a religious family. I’d say there’s a growing spirituality in our household, but we don’t attend church or adhere to any religious beliefs. These questions always slightly throw me. Again, honesty is the best policy and I own up to not knowing these answers. That’s okay, I actually think it’s good that Benjamin learns that his mummy is a human being that doesn’t always know the answers or gets it ‘right’. I’ve told him about what others believe and told him that he is free to believe whatever he wants to about the afterlife. I’ve also told him that really, no one knows what happens after death, if there is anything afterwards. That it’s one of life’s greatest mysteries that we only get to solve when it’s our turn to die.
Benjamin and death:
- What if you and daddy die and I’m left all by myself?
- When you die, who will look after me?
- I want to be a baby again because a baby is small and new.
- I don’t want to die, what will happen to all my toys?
- I don’t want to die, that means no more birthday parties.
The first two questions are dealing with a deep, unconscious fear that all children have, all of them. It just happens that Benjamin is expressing it consciously, because of what we’ve had to deal with as a family. All children will fear being left, abandoned by their parents, whether from their deaths or otherwise. Death being the ultimate, final abandonment. It’s fundamental to their survival that we are here to look after them and they know it, albeit mostly unconsciously. What did I say? I reassured him that it was very unlikely that daddy or I would die before he was all grown up and able to look after himself. That it was also unlikely that both daddy and I would die at the same time, so even if something happened to one of us, he’d have the other to look after him. And lastly, if the very unlikely thing did happen and both of us did die at the same time, then we have already arranged that he would be looked after by his Auntie and Uncle, who adore him and he them. Benjamin finds it odd to think of himself as a grown up (didn’t we all, I still do!), so I remind him of how far he’s come. I remind him of how when he was a baby, he couldn’t do anything for himself and now he can go to the toilet, feed himself, get dressed, ride his bike, read, write, etc. He sort of gets it, but I can see that the idea of being an adult one day is completely alien! Like most big things in life, until you’ve experienced it, you just don’t understand it.
The other questions/comments are Benjamin just saying ‘hey, life is way more interesting and exciting then what death sounds like, I want to stay alive!’, which let’s face it, most of us think! You can read my post here about this particular discussion with him in more depth, it was our first really BIG death conversation.
Benjamin’s questions/comments range from seriously deep to deeply funny and everything in between. I have learned so much from him about life and death. His open questions and curiosity and courage are inspiring to me. I often get asked ‘how do you know what to say?’ and mostly I’m just following my instincts and letting Benjamin lead the way. I’ve come to realise that if he’s asking the question, then it means he’s ready to hear the answer, even if I know he may not like it (and I don’t like telling it). Child Bereavement UK have lots of resources to help guide parents, caregivers and anyone else who spends time with a bereaved child. Books have helped us, especially in the early days when we were trying to find our feet with talking about death. Again, CBUK has a good list.
It isn’t easy, it’s completely exhausting having these conversations with Benjamin. He usually asks these things at bedtime, while we are snuggling together. Which is lovely, and goes to show how important spending time at bedtime together is, but I’m usually pretty tired at the end of the day and to then have to find the emotional reserves to deal with these very deep and sometimes painful questions asks a lot from me. I’ve had to learn that it’s okay for me to say, ‘can we take a break now?’. I’ve never said this straight away, as soon as he asks a death question, but I have said it after we’ve both expressed a lot and I know we’re both tired. I always leave the door open on a conversation, but just ask that we take a break and maybe let what we’ve discussed sink in a little and then we can talk about it some more another day if he wishes. Benjamin’s always been cool about this, maybe even a little relieved. I’d like to think it’s teaching him that you can remain open to others and state your needs.
I have also let Benjamin know that Luna’s short life also has happiness attached to it, not just sadness, anger, frustration. He was a bit surprised by this, which is how I know it was the right thing to say and made me realise I need to embody this more often. I explained that Luna has taught us how to live life, how to love and look after each other. She has knitted our family more closely together and for that I am eternally grateful. I hope this helps a little bit. Mostly, don’t be afraid to talk about death to small children. They understand more than we often give them credit for. I’ve learnt that hiding things from Benjamin, rather than telling the truth, creates confusion, anxiety and possibly fear, not the other way around. There will always be consequences for either telling or not telling the truth and allowing or not allowing uncomfortable and painful feelings. We are dealing with the pain, confusion, anger, disbelief as it comes up, rather than ‘shushing’ it away to just be buried for another day. I suppose I feel that by putting in the hard work, energy and effort now, I’m hopefully laying a solid foundation that fosters a truly compassionate and loving adult Benjamin to emerge. Who understands that life is precious and unpredictable, so best to live it while you can and love those special people in your life with everything that you’ve got.