How can children expect to learn that death is a normal part of life if it kept hidden from them?
There have been several news articles posted recently online regarding popular television host Jonnie Irwin. One article, published on November 15, 2022, from People caught my eye, Jonnie Irwin Says He Hasn't Told His Kids He Has Terminal Cancer: 'Why Shatter That Innocence?'. The article mentions that he is keeping his diagnosis private from his three kids, focusing on making meaningful memories with his family in his remaining time. He has three children, sons Rex, 3, and twins Rafa and Cormac, 2.
I do applaud Mr. Irwin’s goal to spend quality time with his wife and children but I, as a death doula, worry when I hear about people wanting to shield their children from death. Most children are not prepared at all when death “visits the family”. Children need to learn, from an early stage, that what lives also dies.
We only fool ourselves when we believe that we can shield our children from death. Children are more aware of death then adults realize. Death plays a large role in everyone’s life. We might play Peek-a-boo with a baby which demonstrates that we are present at one moment and gone the next. Young children might recite the death poem “ring around the rosy”. As they grow older, they might watch television shows and movies, or play video games in which death is common. We might event point out examples of death as a part of everyday life (dead birds or animals we see on the road, wilted flowers, change of seasons).
In my opinion, as well as many authors who focus on death and dying, it’s best to explain death to children before someone they love is dying. Ideally this would occur before the situation is emotionally charged. I would counsel my clients to consider it a “facts of life talk part 2”. Susan P. Halpern, in her book The Etiquette of Illness, devotes an entire chapter to talking to children about illness and death. She relates a personal story, at age 18, about her mother being diagnosed with breast cancer and the very long wait in the waiting room, suffering in silence with her brother and father. Which is why she now advocates for “talking, talking, talking…. In this age of accurately telling people about their diagnosis and prognosis, it follows that children should be given the same respect.” (Page 72)
Regardless of a child’s age we can facilitate difficult conversations around death and dying. The main thing to keep in mind is to be open and honest. It’s perfectly fine to state “I don’t know”, especially if you don’t know the answer to a question posed by a child/teenager. Depending on the child’s age, keep your conversations simple and brief. Watch for their reaction before continuing with further information. Do offer more information if they are ready to hear it. Don’t bombard they with information they haven’t asked for and can’t understand.
Death doulas are skilled at facilitating difficult conversations as part of our scope and practice. I challenge Mr. Irwin and everyone else to educate children on the circle of life and its impact. As author David Kessler states, “There’s no cruelty in allowing children to learn that their loved ones, their pets, and eventually they themselves will die. On the contrary, it’s a gift of love.” (The Needs of the Dying, tenth anniversary edition, page 116).