Broaching the subject of death with children is as difficult as talking about sex
A COLLEAGUE once related an incident which involved her 12-year-old son. She was shopping and had found a dress she really liked. Happily, she turned to her only child and said: ‘Mummy likes this dress very much; when I die, put me in the coffin in this dress, okay?’
The poor child broke down instantly. I could understand why.
‘You are one sick mother,’ I told her. But this healthy, fit mother in her 40s, who has run several marathons, said: ‘Sooner or later, I would have to talk to him about me dying anyway. So, what’s wrong with it?’
While an open chat with my children about my wife, or me, dying is something I have long wanted to do, I have always postponed it. I feared it would leave them traumatised.
I used to wonder about my morbid desire to discuss this with my children until I discovered that, like this colleague, several close friends had also been putting off such a chat with their children. The superstitious ones say it is bad luck to do so, while I simply find it hard. It ranks up there with talking to the kids about sex.
Remembering my children’s and my reaction to death as a young boy made me want even more to shield them from the topic. When Shaun was five, he cried when Mufasa, the kind father of the young lion Simba in Walt Disney’s Lion King, died. He might be older but he was still as sensitive as ever.
I never forgot my first encounters with death too – the night someone came to the house and whispered to my Dad that my uncle, who was also my godfather, had been killed in a car accident and the wake of a neighbour where I shut my eyes when my parents took me to the body in the coffin.
I don’t know if it was the unusually high number of natural disasters that year or whether it was just me growing older, but I felt the time had come for me to have that talk. I needed to let my children know some of my thoughts because if death comes suddenly, as it did for my Dad, it could leave emotions hanging. I didn’t want my children feeling that way.
A window of opportunity presented itself recently when the father of one of my children’s friends died suddenly. The girl was 17, the same age as Shaun. I could see that both he and my daughter Natasha, 15, were visibly disturbed. They had known about the death of friends’ grandparents but that of an immediate parent – this was a first.
They struggled with their friend about how she was going to cope without him. I related to them my experience of my Dad’s death. I’d grieved a long time. Part of it stemmed from not having the security of him around, but quite a bit of what I felt also arose from a sense of guilt of not telling him that I loved and appreciated him. I think my Dad never was quite sure where he stood in my books.
My siblings and I were obedient children. We never challenged him – it was the safe thing to do with my strict father. So I resorted to juvenile ways to show that I did not agree with him. A favourite was cheering the ‘bad’ guy in wrestling. Nothing got my Dad, who had a strong sense of fair play and justice, more worked up than when someone supported the rogue wrestler. And he would always fall for it. He would get upset and tell me to shut up.
I was so caught up with getting him agitated to try and get back at him because of his scolding and punishment that I overlooked the big picture – the sacrifices he made every day for the family, like working overtime always to earn extra money so that our family could have some frills and extras.
I only fully appreciated this when he died. I was in my early 20s and was just coming around to saying I should show my Dad that I appreciated him. But it was too late. Sometimes I see my children doing the same silly things I used to do to agitate me. I don’t know if it is in their genes or whether it is part of growing up.
But that night during our 30-minute drive to the wake, I told them that death was inevitable and that they should be prepared to accept it if ‘Mum or I died’. But more importantly, I told them that I didn’t want them to feel guilty like I did after my Dad died, because there really would be no reason to.
‘I had a good time with you,’ I said. ‘Despite your irritating ways, your spending too much time with your friends, you are beautiful children, you are the perfect children in my eyes and I loved every moment of it.
‘Grief for a while, that would be good. Don’t look too happy immediately after I die,’ I added, but I told them that they should move on and live their lives happily. The chat went great and we made a pact to rendezvous in Heaven.
It took a big burden off my chest – now I can rest in peace.
About The Author: Mathew Pereira is currently the Sports Editor of The Straits Times. Between 2004 and 2008, he wrote several columns which talked about his personal experience of fatherhood. This piece was one of many in his collection of fatherhood stories. Mathew is a member of the Fathers Action Network (FAN).
First published on 16-01-2012.