“Perhaps you were told that the absent loved one is now in heaven or asleep with the angels- the ‘D’ word avoided like Aunt Agnes’ infamous tuna surprise?”
In previous columns, I have examined how the postponement of any thoughtful consideration of death can have disastrous consequences. Our death-denying culture provides precious few opportunities to deal healthily with our mortality before it comes crashing down.
Why is dealing with death so hard? Early childhood messages do not help. Think spooks, skeletons, things that go bump in the night, and specter of hell and damnation. From a very young age, most of us have had it drilled into our heads that we should not ask questions about death. How come? Because it’s either inappropriate, it will bring bad luck or maybe even hasten this reality.
When you were a child, how many times did a relative, family friend or even a beloved pet simply disappear- never to be heard from or spoken of again? Or perhaps you were told that the absent loved one is now in heaven or asleep with the angels- the “D” word avoided like Aunt Agnes’ infamous tuna surprise? Or maybe you were told that someone you knew had died, but you could not go to the funeral because it was “no place for kids.”
How much of the confusion, bewilderment and unresolved grief from your childhood are you still carrying with you today? Is it any wonder that, when faced with the prospect of our own death, we often feel like we have been ordered to belt out our swan song without ever having an opportunity to learn the tune?
In the first chapter of my book, The Amateur’s Guide To Death And Dying, I ask my readers to confront head-on the un-golden silence that surrounds the end of life. I invite them to consider the early messages they received about death and dying. How old were you when you first heard or witnessed these things? What were the messages you picked up about death and dying from movies or television? Many often report that their deepest fears about the topic spring straight from a traumatic childhood incident or misshapen belief that was forced upon them when they were kids. Not surprisingly, most of these people report they continue to carry these fears as adults.
Why is dealing with death so hard? Early childhood messages do not help. Think spooks, skeletons, things that go bump in the night, and specter of hell and damnation.
That is criminal. There is a better way to handle this delicate matter than avoiding it, sidestepping it or perpetuating a misconceptions among young people. We can break the vicious cycle of our culture’s death phobia by refusing to contaminate another generation. It would take a concerted effort, but it would mean that we must first resolve ourselves of our own fears. It is doable.
A good place to begin is with the stories we read and tell our children. Stories, both written and recited, become the basis of our children’s understanding of the world. Stories contribute to their language development and to their critical thinking and coping skills. Death and grief are particularly thorny subjects to communicate, not because our children are incapable of grasping the message, but because we- the adult storytellers- are often uncomfortable with the topics ourselves.
To address this problem, I developed a workshop titled: “Exploring Death and Grief Through the Medium of the Children’s Story.” In this workshop, I help adults choose age-specific messaging and storytelling. I assist them in molding the basic concepts about
death and bereavement into the arc of their story. Finally, I offer the workshop attendees tips on writing and illustrating their own story with the kids in their lives.
By way of example, I share my latest children’s story, Longfellow And The Deep Hidden Woods. Longfellow is the bravest and noblest wiener dog in the world. As my story begins, he is a puppy learning how to be a good friend to his human companions, old Henry and Henry’s nurse, Miss O’weeza Tuffy. By the end of the story, Longfellow has grown old himself- but he is ready for a final adventure. What happens in between throws a tender light on the difficult truths of loss and longing, as well as on our greatest hopes. Curiously, all the adults who have read my story say they think it is actually a book for adults. Maybe so!
Writing and illustrating a children’s story with your kids can be a bonding experience for both the adult and the child; but this is especially true when the topics include death and bereavement. The project can open a door to a life-long appreciation for and the affirmation of life, especially its final season. The discussion that will be part of your story writing project can also help reshape the coming generation’s perceptions about the end of life. It may also help you rethink the early message you received about death and dying.
My workshop ends with one proviso: I caution adults not to wait until a pressing need arises for the story writing or telling. I encourage them to start now- before Grandpa or the beloved family pet is dead. I suggest that they get a jump on the project right away. If they do, it will not appear to their kids like they are trying to play catch-up when death comes calling. We don’t hold off teaching young people arithmetic until they get their first job making change at the grocery or the fast food counter, right?
Try to imagine how writing a story about death and grief with your kids or grandkids will change their trajectory in terms of their understanding of this fundamental fact. Imagine if someone asks them, twenty or forty years from now, what their earliest memories about death and dying are. Surely they will think back fondly on the time they spent with you as you helped them understand the marvelous cycle of life.
Will this one exercise inoculate your children from all the culturally induced fears, apprehensions and superstitions that abound in our death-phobic society? Probably not. But as the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Read more about Longfellow and the Deep Hidden Woods: http://www.hushpuppybooks.com/our-books/longfellow-and-the-deep-hid den-woods/