A Question of Explaining Death to a Childsam
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Ask Your Mama, The What, When, Where, Why, How, and Who of Ceremony & Spirituality
by Mama Donna Henes, Urban Shaman
Dear Mama Donna,
My daughter Sherry, who is nine, has just broken down four years after her aunt’s death, who was only 40 when she died without any warning. My daughter wants to know why God is so mean to take her aunt away and leave her two daughters struggling. Sherry is full of sadness because of her loss and she blames God. A part of me thanked the universe for allowing her to cry and feel her sadness. I told her God is not mean and it is when we do not have the answers that we must have the most faith. I encouraged her to be grateful for the gifts that her aunt shared with her and the blessing that she was a special part of her life. Of course that is not a satisfying answer to adults, let alone a child. How do I teach what I am still learning? I want my daughter to find peace. I do not want her to wait until she is an adult to awaken. I do not want her heart to be full of sadness. I do not want her to find herself suddenly at 37 trying to release a lifetime of pain. How do I help my nine year old daughter embrace a spiritual path? If you have any thoughts I would love to hear them.
Love and peace,
-A Worried Mom in New York
Death certainly is the grand mystery, baffling to adults and so much more so to children.
Emphasizing all the blessings of having had her aunt in her life is excellent advice for your daughter, of course. But it places their relationship squarely in the past. And I would guess that Sherry’s grief comes from feeling that she has lost her aunt completely and forever. That the love that they had shared is now irrevocably over. A very sad thought, indeed.
But relationship, connection, love do not end at death.
Perhaps a better tack would be to suggest that love never dies. That her aunt will live in her heart as long as she remembers her. Kids are terrified that they will forget friends and relatives who have passed on. We all are. So encourage Shelly to talk about her memories. Each time she tells a favorite story, her aunt will “come to life” for her.
Some helpful and therapeutic projects might include writing down all the good times that she remembers. Or recommend that she create a scrapbook with photographs of her aunt, pictures that she draws, and any memorable items she has saved, such as greeting cards, letters and souvenirs from outings. This will be both a tribute to the memory of her aunt as well as insurance that she will never forget her.
Dreaming is another way to connect with our loved ones on the other side of the great divide. Urge her to remember her dreams. At breakfast ask her about them. Suggest that she invite her aunt to visit her in her dreams.
Don’t shy away from questions about the nature of death. Explain that death is a normal part of life and that it is about changing form. Everything changes always. When we understand this, we are walking the way of spirit, which is all about change and transformation.
Talk about how the seasons change and how nature seems to die in the winter and be reborn every spring. Talk about how the moon disappears each month and then comes back again. Have her give you examples of natural change.
A few years ago I did a residency in an elementary school where I worked with 4th grade kids on learning about and celebrating holidays and holy days from around the world. One day while I was there, a bird flew into the window and died. The kids were appalled and very upset.
So I took them outside and suggested that we bury the bird. “Oh, gross,” the girls protested. They thought of death as being dirty and scary. But I persisted.
“If you think about it in a certain way, death is magical. This bird will turn into grass and flowers.” I explained that if we put the bird in the ground, Mother Earth will turn it into dirt. And if we plant seeds in that dirt, they will grow right there on top of the bird.
“Cool!” they all exclaimed.
Sherry is lucky to have you be concerned about her spiritual wellbeing. Share with her all that you are learning. Let her in on your process. And if you do, I guarantee that she will not be first waking up at 37, for she will have a marvelous role model.
All blessings of peace of mind,
*Send your questions about seasons, cycles, celebrations, ceremonies and spirit to Mama Donna at: CityShaman@aol.com