Back in January, I wrote a post called How Will Your Child Learn About Death? It was a decent post, talking about a case report I've always found fascinating where a young girl thought she would die if she didn't drink sugar water because of the way death had been explained to her.
This post is not that cute.
I've been thinking about death a lot recently, as my father just died a few weeks ago. Two weeks ago tomorrow, actually. Within an hour of his passing, I made half a dozen calls telling people he had died. I come from a big family and, although all of us had been with him within the week and we all knew it was coming, it was still hard. Sisters, husband, son- and daughter-in-laws, friends of my mother who she couldn't bring herself to call . . . I had to tell my own son by text because he lives in the Kalahari Desert and Google Talk is the most reliable way to communicate because phones break down in the middle of a sentence.
In each case, I started with the same phrase "Dad/Opa/My father has just died."
An evening of poetry
I was thinking about those conversations tonight when I was listening to an amazing group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders reading poetry. The students had been working with a group of Oberlin College creative writing majors. As part of their own class, the college students came in and ran poetry workshops in the middle school. There was even one 6th grade class who worked with the Oberlin Apollo Outreach Initiative creating animations to go along with their original poetry.
And then there were the poems about death.
One of the lessons was about writing about something you didn't understand. Two young poets wrote about being told someone important to them had died and not understanding what they were being told.
One wrote about being told his father had committed suicide. No one ever explained that his father had died and the word 'suicide' was not one he understood. He just knew his father was gone and wasn't coming back. Perhaps like the child, when listening to the poem for a long time you couldn't figure out quite what was happening other than that it was something bad and terrifying and confusing.
In one a close relative died suddenly - a brother? father? a grandfather? - the poem never said. The young child had been told they were 'free', that they had 'passed', and that they were now in the sky. They didn't know what that meant and, apparently, in all that happened around a death and funeral, no one ever explained. It was only at the cemetery when he saw the coffin and people crying that he figured it out.
Neither poet could read them themselves, as the emotions were still too raw. But they had written them and others had given them voice.
I remember my first funeral standing next to my father and him telling me never to tell a child that the dead person was 'sleeping' because it would make them afraid to sleep at night.
But I was so struck this evening with these young teenagers' poems talking about how they had been told someone very important to them had died, but that they simply had not understood what they were being told.
I've seen that happen myself. When my own Opa died, the hospital called my grandmother to break the news. They said he had 'expired'. A German immigrant, my grandmother did not understand the word 'expired'. She handed the phone to my mother who, after talking to the hospital, had to break the news.
Death and loss are emotionally powerful. They interfere with our ability to process ideas and even process language.
There's nothing wrong with the word 'die' or the word 'dead'. The words are clear words. They won't make a painful reality any harsher and they do not communicate disrepect of those who have died.
For children especially, it is more important that what is being communicated is understood.