We Can Learn from Children’s Response to Death

Since the fall, I have participated in a program called Roots of Empathy. In “Roots” I bring my son Eden to a grade two class every month of the school year and the children observe Eden grow and learn. I often talk about Eden’s older sister and our family.

Since the beginning of Roots I wondered if I should tell the kids about Zachary. I hummed and hawed over this decision every month and I eventually asked the program teacher if it was appropriate, or possibly too upsetting for the young children. She said, “If you are comfortable, go for it!”

When an opportunity arose, I did talk about Zachary to my Root’s kids and their reaction was touching and profoundly instructive for adults on how to address death.

Photograph Copyright Alexis Marie Chute

“Baby Eden” Photograph Copyright Alexis Marie Chute

Unlike many adults I’ve interacted with, the kids did not grow uncomfortable when I talked about my son’s death. Instead they showed genuine sympathy and concern asking, “What happened? How did Zachary die?” And it didn’t stop there. “What is a tumor?” they asked. “Did Zachary crawl before he died?” “Did you take him home?” “Did Eden get to meet Zachary?”

The children were obviously sad, but they were curious and welcomed the opportunity to talk and celebrate Zachary’s short life. If only adults could be so open.

Of course the kids did not have all the right things to say, they didn’t offer comforting words and sometimes they said things that others may think inappropriate – but that didn’t matter. They were trying to understand what happened and what I have been through which is all I could ever ask of anyone (not just children).

Even in talking to my 3 year old about Zachary, the conversation is never awkward or forced; it is never full of pie in the sky, easy answers. We just talk. We simply tell each other how much we miss Zachary and all the things we had hoped to do with him.

I believe adults can learn a great deal about how to approach death and those grieving by the reactions of children.

Somehow there is a societal expectation to say an uplifting word to a grieving person. Why? Do any of us ever truly know what the other person needs to hear? Like children, just being genuine and saying, “That is so hard,” is often enough.

Also, it seems that the belief that we “should not pry” into other’s business has taken a permanent seat at the table of manners. This politeness can often be understood as disinterest by the one dealing with a loss. True, I don’t always want to divulge every detail, but generally (and I’m only speaking for myself) I like talking about Zachary.

When people skirt the issue of death or the lost loved one, even if it’s out of respect, it’s far too easy for the griever to feel disconnected from that person. I would rather people asked me about my son and how I am doing because it shows they care and that what matters to me also matters to them. That is the most kind and gracious approach from my perspective. I never forget when my friends/family/acquaintances do this for me. Who doesn’t want to know they matter to another person? And frankly, if I don’t want to talk about it, I’ll say so.

Truly, there is no perfect response to death or an ideal manner to approach a grieving person because we all are so different. I just hope that we can learn to be more open like children, genuinely care for each other and above all, celebrate our babies.

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