Dev was 3.6 years old when the topic of death surfaced. The unit at his school that term was ‘Who we are’, a large part of which included learning about family, friends and relationships. One weekend, his homework was to create a family tree. With the help of his parents, he had to stick pictures of his immediate family members. This exercise was, of course, to encourage the kids to learn how he was related to each family member and how they were related to each other.
So, Dev sat with my husband, found photographs of each person in our immediate family, cut them and stuck them on the tree in the book. My father-in-law passed away when my husband was 18. Dev being the inquirer that he is, had questioned who the gentleman in the photos whom he had never met was, from the time he could string a sentence together. He was told that he was his ‘Ajooba’, which means ‘Grandfather’ in Marathi. However, when the family tree exercise was in progress, Dev asked “Mama, where is Ajooba? How come I don’t ever see him?”
Explaining it the right way:
We often underestimate young kids and assume that complicated topics are not warranted until they are much older, so we tend to avoid them. What we tend to forget is that although it may seem like a difficult subject to approach for us, when broken down into simple age-appropriate language, kids understand just fine. In fact, from my personal experience, the younger they are the easier it is to explain things to them. Their view of the world is so pure and untainted when they are young, so they do not already have pre-conceived notions about anything. I have always been a firm believer in addressing difficult topics with my kids from the time they could communicate. So, when Dev asked him where his Ajooba was, we told him that he had gone up to God. I had already mentally prepared myself for the day that this discussion would arise, so that included mustering up the calm demeanour and strength to answer the stream of questions that ensued.
Dev has always been the type of child to accept an answer only after a reasonable explanation has been given to him. He also persists with questions until he is satisfied with the answer.
When he was told Ajooba had gone up to God, he followed it up by asking “Why did God want to take him?”, “How did he go?”, “Will he come back?” Before I became a mother myself, I have overheard parents telling kids that the person is travelling and may not come back for some time, or that the person is sleeping. I remember wondering at that time what will happen once some time passed, and the child did not see that person. I have also realized that the concept of permanency is tough for kids to understand so the topic of death needs to be revisited multiple times.
The truth sets us apart, even with our own kids. They expect and appreciate honesty from their parents more than anything in this world. However much we want to protect them, any indication that we lied to them diminishes their trust in us. When in doubt, I make it a habit to put myself in my kids’ shoes and reflect on how I would feel if I was in their place. None of us like being lied to, so why would it be any different for our kids? We explained to Dev that his Ajooba would not be coming back and he would not be able to see him, but he will always be watching over him. Immediately he looked up to see if he could see Ajooba watching him. We told him that God took him suddenly because it was his time to go, and he was happy up in heaven. It was important to explain that some people go up to God earlier than others and sometimes people fall ill, and medicine does not help. So, God calls them to help take away the pain. This resulted in silence and a wide-eyed Dev who was pondering over the event that marks the end of life.
Although kids have multiple caretakers when they are young, their primary protectors are their parents. The people they furtively look for as soon as they enter a room are their parents. Any emotional or mental need is first addressed and nurtured by the parents. It is natural for feelings of insecurity and fear to emerge when they are placed in or faced with a situation where their parents are absent.
The next round of questions that Dev hurled at us while still doing the family tree ripped my heart out. “Will you and Papa go up to God soon Mama?”, “Who will take care of me if you go up to God?” “Will I have a different mother and father?” The calm and tranquil tone of his voice when he asked me this threw me. He was questioning his separation from his parents and if that would mean loss of care. I hugged him and answered those questions firmly as it was crucial to show him that it was ok to talk about things that upset us. We assured him that we were not going to die for a long time, however, if we did, there would so many people to take care of him. For a child who is still uncomfortable with sleeping alone at night, this reassurance that he would never be alone seemed to provide him comfort.
Since then, whenever we speak about someone who has passed away and Dev overhears us, without missing a beat he asks us who died, how and if the person has gone to God. Now at 4.6, he can talk about death very openly without bursting into tears. So, whether the discussion revolves around death, child abuse prevention, illness and any other difficult subject, always tell your kids the truth. Versions varying from the truth result in them hearing other concocted versions from peers and outside influences, which may not be acceptable to you.
Make them feel as secure as possible by reassuring them that they will always be protected and looked after. Comfort goes a long way. I believe in helping my kids understand that there are certain things which are an inevitable part of life and death is one of them.