A note about today’s post: When our grandfather (the Aged P’s dad) died, I wanted to write a post about how we talked about death with J and Little E, and helped them process their grief. However, as my own personal grief felt too fresh, I was not able to properly organise my thoughts on the subject, so this post has actually been percolating in my mind for over a year now.
For the Barn Owl and myself, death is something that we encounter quite often in our line of work as doctors, and sometimes helping patients and their families to prepare themselves for the inevitable is part of the job description. However, managing the impact of a death on an individual and helping them through the process of grief and loss is something entirely new to me.
In our family, we have never shied away from the topic of death. This is because the Barn Owl and I feel that death is not something that should be feared, but should be viewed as a natural part of life. Since J and Little E were very small, we have had no qualms in taking them with us when we are paying our respects at a funeral (which, in Singapore, is generally an open casket arrangement) or when visiting the graveyard or columbarium.
During these visits, we always talked to J and Little E about what happens when people die and it is amazing how much a child can understand.
I remember the first conversation that I had with J on the subject. J was just a little over 2 years old at the time and we were at the funeral of his Godpa’s late grandmother, who was a kindly and well-loved lady. During the funeral, family members recounted stories and memories, and showed photographs of family gatherings where the lady was often smiling and laughing. At the end of the service, I brought J to the casket and he peered down at her face and said to me, frowning, “Auntie there. Not same. Gone.”
“Yes,” I replied, “This is just her body. Her body is dead and she has left it behind. She is not here anymore.”
“Yes,” said J, nodding, “Gone.”
“To die will be an awfully big adventure” – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
When our grandfather (the Aged P’s dad) passed away, J and Little E were quite overwhelmed by the funeral wake and services, and we had many talks with them about death and dying during that time, and in the months afterwards.
Some of the questions they had were quite difficult to answer, but we always answered them truthfully, acknowledging their feelings and thoughts about the subject and sharing with them our feelings too. Quite often, we tried to gauge their feelings by the sort of question that they asked, and we would try to address their anxieties whilst channeling their thoughts in a different direction.
Like I said in my previous post, kids adjust to news in a different manner that what we might expect, and they take a lot longer to process information. This meant that J and Little E would repeatedly ask the same questions over the course of several months. As they adjusted to the death of their great-grandfather, the frequency of these questions decreased.
Here are some of the difficult questions that they asked and how we answered them.
What is death?
Death is when life ends. The body doesn’t work anymore. The body cannot move, or eat, or sleep, or think or feel. It is not alive. It is dead.
Will I die? Will you die? Will (insert name here) die?
Yes, one day, you will die. One day, I will die. I don’t think that we will die for a long time. Everything that is alive in the world will die one day. This is why being alive is important. We should be thankful for being alive, and enjoy the time that we have with each other. This time that we have to be alive is a precious thing, a treasure. Now is the time that we have do things to make our lives mean something, something good, something that matters. Now is the time we have to make good memories.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Will I get sick and die, just like Great-grandpa? When will I die?
When you get sick, it does not always mean that you will die. A cough, cold or flu may make you feel really awful, but actually, you are only a little bit ill, just for a short while, then you will get better. Great-grandpa was very seriously unwell for a very long time. It is not the same as when you or I get sick.
Sometimes, if you are very old and unwell, like Great-grandpa, you will know that you are dying. An old person’s body doesn’t always work the way it is supposed to. Everything slows down. It takes longer to get well when you are sick, and sometimes parts of your body will not work the way it should and you have to take medicine to make it work.
Nobody knows exactly when they will die. I hope that you and I will not die for a long time. When we are alive, we try not to think about when we will die, or how we will die. We try to think about what we can do with our life now, what we can do today. If we spend all out time thinking and worrying about dying, then we will be wasting all the time that we have, all the time that we have to enjoy being alive.
I know you feel worried about dying. It is okay to be a little bit worried and scared about dying. Sometimes I feel scared and worried about it too, but then I remember that I have other things to think about which are more important, much more important to me than worrying about dying. If you keep worrying about dying, you will not be able to enjoy being alive. That would be a very sad thing, not being about to enjoy being alive.
“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Is dying a very bad thing? Why are people sad when somebody dies?
Dying is not a bad thing, it is a sad thing. It is sad for us, because we feel left behind and we miss the person who has died, because we cannot see them alive anymore or make any new memories of them. You have many memories of Great-grandpa; some are happy and some are sad, but they are all important because you will not be able to make new memories with Great-grandpa now that he has died.
I feel sad that Great-grandpa has died because he was important to me and I miss him, but remembering his life and talking about him makes me feel a little better. When you feel sad about Great-grandpa, you can always talk to us about it and we can remember him together.
Where is Great-grandpa now?
Great-grandpa’s body is here. But that is just his body. His soul, his spirit, his personality, everything that was Great-grandpa, everything important about him, everything that really matters – all his thoughts, all his memories, the part of him that could think and feel – that is not here. It is gone.
I believe that the part of Great-Grandpa that made him who he was, that part of him has gone to heaven, and the body that you can see in the coffin, is just an empty shell that he left behind.
Where is heaven? Can I go to heaven now?
No. It is not possible to get to heaven. You have to wait until after you die. But you have too many things to do first before you die, you have your whole life to live. You have to patient and wait your turn.
“It’s necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live.” ― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
What are we going to do with Greatgrandpa’s body? What is going to happen to it?
After the funeral is over, we will take Greatgrandpa’s body and we will cremate it. This means that we will burn the body. We will put his ashes into a jar and the jar will be kept in a place called a columbarium. This will be Great-Grandpa’s grave. It is where we will go to remember Great Grandpa. This is what Greatgrandpa wanted us to do.
Not everyone who dies gets cremated. Some people prefer their bodies to be buried in the ground instead. Graveyards are places where people are buried.
Graves and graveyards are quiet places. They are good places for sitting and thinking quietly about the people who have died and remembering what they were like. Sometimes, people will visit graves and spend time tidying it up and decorating it with flowers. They do this because they want to show respect and love for the person that has died, and also so that other people who are walking by will stop and look at the grave and the gravestone. They will read the name on the gravestone and think to themselves, “This person must have been very special to someone when they were alive.” If you like, we can visit Great-grandpa’s grave together and make sure that it is looking nice.
“But Mother was cremated. This means that she was put into a coffin and burned and ground up and turned into ash and smoke. I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn’t ask at the crematorium because I didn’t go to the funeral. But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or snow somewhere.” ― Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Again, as with kids, their response and behaviour towards death can be unpredictable. It will probably be necessary to brief them on what is expected of them during the funeral or funeral wake. They don’t have to cry or look sad, but they do have to be mindful and respectful of other people who are in mourning.
Which is why on the way to the cremation service, I overheard J and Little E having the following conversation:
J: Hurry up or we’ll be late!
Little E: I’m hurrying, I’m hurrying!
J: If we’re late we’ll miss everything!
Little E: Okay, okay!
J: I don’t want to be late for the demonstration!