This article is the first of a five part series. As we continue to go in search of the best science available for those in suffering, and expose the many wrongs within the psychiatry community, this series takes an in-depth look at how we as parents can encourage resiliency and psychological health in our children throughout their lifespan. Focus will be specifically placed on the ways in which we communicate to our children, and as importantly, the ways in which we take care of ourselves in order make impactful, positive communication possible.
In 2013, Paul Salopek set out on a journey of ultra-epic proportions from the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia to the southernmost tip of South America. His journey, known as “the longest walk” will entail 21,000 miles over seven years. As detailed in the recent December edition of National Geographic, the quest will follow the migration of human ancestry in hopes of discovering truths one step at a time. Early in the journey while crossing a lava field in Djibouti three miles short of reaching the Gulf of Aden, Salopek passed by corpses and shallow graves of Africans who were in search of work in the Middle East. In reflecting on their recent, tragic deaths, Salopek noted demographer statistics indicating that 93 percent of human beings that have existed in this world no longer are. The inevitability of death is inescapable just as life continues.
So it is with our children, and with us, who at any point may be faced with the death of those we know well. Death rarely happens at a convenient time. In order to teach our children how to cope with its challenges, we must first know what they understand. Researchers such as Marla Nagy and others have uncovered that prior to school age, children typically see death as neither permanent nor inevitable. In their view, life, and that of others, carries on infinitely, and even when death reaches their doorstep, these children often await the next meeting with that person. By the time children reach elementary school ages, however, most begin to recognize the finality of death, but do not recognize that it will occur for everyone. Children ages five to ten recognize that living things die, but do not comprehend the universality of it all. It is not until children pass the age of ten that they generally come to know that there is no escaping the earthly end.
For most parents, addressing the topic of death is an uncomfortable proposition. Yet, it may be one of the most important discussions we have with our children. Our lifelong response to death often affects our mental and physical health. Often, dying brings up youthful questions about the possibility of our own death, and of theirs. Although these questions usually evoke a reflexive urge to provide an absolute statement that we and they will not die for a long time, we must be careful in making promises that we cannot guarantee. Instead, we as parents must first acknowledge our youth’s concerns. Next, we should reassure them of the ways in which we are making health and safety a high priority in our daily lives. Then we must make sure that what we say, we actually do. But above all, we must teach our children practices from an early age that can buffer the unavoidable distress that would come if the worst occurs.
We also must not automatically worry about questions that persist. In my office, parents regularly voice significant concerns about spontaneous questions voiced by their child about a deceased loved one, often years after little had been said. They worry that unresolved emotions may have surfaced, and that this may signify deep unsettledness. But often, this does not appear to be the case. Instead, as children’s intellectual capacity grows, their ability to ask novel questions does too. They begin to think more abstractly and analytically about circumstances that they previously accepted just as is. They reflect on pictures and stories, and wonder whether what they have been told makes sense. Just as they introspectively see their own life emerging in front of them, so too emerges their perspective on death. We must ask ourselves some important questions. What do we want to convey about those who have succumbed to death? How do we manage unresolved conflict and angst that did not leave at the grave? It is at these intersections of pain and pride that we are faced with real choices. Even for those youth whose loved ones have died in tragic, even traumatic ways, these moments of query provide parents with an opportunity, one that may exist in the midst of their own emotional turmoil and pain.
Often, we may be tempted to just avoid. Although this may seem like an alleyway to prevent an onslaught of our own anger, avoidance prevents a chance to have a meaningful conversation with our child. In having these conversations, we must begin with an authentic admission of our own personal challenges that came with the death itself—not one of hysterics, but often one of deep grief and possible conflict—one developmentally mindful of what is appropriate for the child in front of us. From there conversations diverge, but should remain authentically reflective of the person that has passed. It is customary to eulogize eloquence and avoid less favorable truths—truths that our youth may have already recognized in that person in some form. But the best responses for our youth as they try to navigate their own personal journey through life are an acknowledgment of the strengths and weaknesses that the deceased carried with them, too. In doing so, we should give honor and respect to those who have passed on, but not complete absolution towards their imperfect humanity.
Unfortunately, this happens all too often with the historical figures in our history books. They are depicted as having lived infallible lives, just as funerals and obituaries usually espouse about the recently deceased. But these glowing depictions rob our youth of a chance to really know them so they can seek particular, meaningful ways to better themselves. And yet, for those who have left us bitter, we also must be careful to not express a malevolent view of the world through our descriptions of those who have died. This can result in life threatening circumstances of a whole different sort. In all of these discussions with our children, it is critical that we not allow ill-fated motivations to guide us.
This past year, my grandfather died. I loved him deeply. He was a man of great integrity, of great values, who loved my grandmother and my mother so, so much. His funeral was a celebration, and my oldest uncle aptly noted upon his eulogy that his life “was a job well done.” Months later, my cousin and I were speaking about him, and all the things that we remembered. Midst his remarkable life, he, like all, had struggled with certain things. Significant health issues resulted in a massive heart attack which probably should have killed him twenty-five years earlier. At times, his work and interests demanded time that created challenges and tension that my cousin and I were recognizing in our own lives. We wondered more how things had worked, and how they had not, and just what we could have learned from his life that had been. His challenges and shortfalls did not diminish his amazing life, but suggested there was a context for which our lives would be gauged.
As our youth grow older, and as we do the same, it is at this juncture that we start to see that the views of our young children make more sense. Wendell Berry, in his book A World Lost, noted this in the words of the main character, Andy, reflecting on the tragic, untimely death of his uncle. In a poignant end to the book, he notes:
“. . . slowly I have learned that my true home is not just this place but is also that company of immortals with whom I have lived here day by day. I live in their love, and I know something of the cost. Sometimes in the darkness of my own shadow I know that I could not see at all were it not for this old inquiry of love and grief, this little flickering lamp that I have watched beside for all these years.”
Although an earthly death remains, those who have died stay with us in many ways. For some, the relationships they have with the deceased may be as important as their relationships with the ones who stay back. Some endure in inspiration, others in admiration, others in condemnation, but all endure in some way. In finding a way to move forward, it is not that we should forget about those who have passed; it is that we must not remain static in their memory, but grow in the way we hoped they would have. With stagnancy often comes bitterness and despondency, and with this, the memories of their life cease to inspire or teach in a way is necessary for us to fulfill our roles in new life each day.
Our final lesson may be that death is not final at all, nor are the conversations that we will have. In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle noted the advice of her rabbi when it came to those close that had passed. It was suggested “that we have four things to say to them: I’m sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I love you. This is what makes us human, over time, over distance.” The reality of death will never be far away, just like billions of our ancestors before. Death itself becomes life, often providing moments of meaning and direction not available otherwise. But left unspoken, or avoided, or disparaged, death can lead to much distress, and can spawn psychological problems that cross generational lines. We must prepare our kids for it, and prepare ourselves for these conversations when circumstances present themselves. For someday, we also will leave this earth, and our children and our loved ones will be left behind. Just what will the conversations upon our death be?
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
This is a very touching post, and so universally relevant. What we call ‘death’ sure does leave us open to all sorts of unresolved issues, and somehow, we are asked to find peace. That can be so challenging in certain circumstances. Really takes a lot of soul and spiritual reflection, as well as emotional cleansing. Looking at this a powerful way to deepen our awareness.
I particularly enjoyed reading this line, “His funeral was a celebration, and my oldest uncle aptly noted upon his eulogy that his life ‘was a job well done.’”
That is so incredibly life affirming.
There are cultures which believe that there is no death, as we feel it presently, but merely a transition into non-physical unity–the oneness that connects us all, whether or not we’re in a body. It is a release of all resistance. The body is merely resistance in physical form. When we release our bodies, I hear that it’s literally orgasmic, as we understand everything in that instance.
I can’t say for sure, but it speaks to me in a way that feels really good and assuring. Gives life that eternal ring. So indeed, it can be a cause for celebration.
The circumstances of a transition, however, are what can create confusion and prolonged grief for the survivors. I think this is where meaningful support is most relevant.
Thank you so much for opening up such a valuable and significant topic. There is so much we don’t understand about our passages in and out of life that can come to light from discussions, and that can only be of such value to our personal and collective well-being. I think it’s great that you are encouraging it so openly.
Thank you very much for your kind thoughts and wonderful insights. You are so right in saying that it is “universally revelant” – no doubt that all of us will be touched by this topic very closely many times in our lives. And I think when you said “reassuring”, that is the hope that I have for my kids, that although the deaths of those close to them will, and should be, very difficult to them in many ways, there is great reassurance that comes with knowing a person intimately and maintaing that relationship into eternity.
James, in response to your past before this, about helping to shift psychiatry, I was cynical about even having this as a goal, for a variety of reasons which I stated.
But I will conceded this now–I think your sphere of influence is really positive with this kind of focus and direction, and you seem really grounded about it. You are encouraging open dialogue and raised awareness as a natural fabric of family relationships, which is sorely needed. I strongly feel this takes us in the exact right direction, if we are to heal as a society, at the core, and shift our reality for the better–open, transparent, authentic. I feel a lot of relief thinking about this.
I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the series!
I mean…”in response to your POST”…don’t know about your ‘past’ 🙂
Thank you for your willingness to continue following my postings despite your initial skepticism, which of course I think is always a critical element in deducing information and ideas that we consume. I certainly appreciated your thoughts on my previous post, too.
Again, I agree wholeheartedly with what you said, and feel that in order for any valid movement to be effective, especially one that is perceived as countercultural, it must have two major things in place. One, it must seek to truthfully expose the wrongs that have been committed, but just as important, it must illuminate a clear pathway to follow. It must do this on both a micro and macro level. Until this happens, IMHO, I don’t think that it can ever be effective in the way it desires. My hope is that my message will better illuminate a clear pathway on a micro, yet universal level. We will see.
Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment, and certainly pass along to anyone you think might benefit. I have a feeling, too, that you will enjoy the next part of the series to come…
“…in order for any valid movement to be effective, especially one that is perceived as countercultural, it must have two major things in place. One, it must seek to truthfully expose the wrongs that have been committed, but just as important, it must illuminate a clear pathway to follow. It must do this on both a micro and macro level. Until this happens, IMHO, I don’t think that it can ever be effective in the way it desires. My hope is that my message will better illuminate a clear pathway on a micro, yet universal level.”
Our oldest son will be graduating from college soon. A few days ago, we were on the phone:
“Remember our drives, dad?”
I used to take him for drives at night. We would go to the park, or out by the airport to watch the planes land…
We talked about *everything*… I tried to teach him some of the things I learned along the way, with stories, filled with passion and humor.
And I would listen… giving him the opportunity to just talk, about whatever was on his mind. And we talked about everything imaginable, including death.
Now that he has left our home, there are times I question how I might have been a better dad… I’m hardly perfect.
But those drives were something neither one of us will ever forget:
“Yeah, I remember those drives…. Those are some of the best memories of my life.”
“Me too, dad.”
Your comments were a poignant post in themselves. As a father of young children, I often wonder how the memories that evolve each day will be recalled in years to come. And often, I worry that I am not available to my kids fully in the ways that I need to be as they grow up. Yet the words of your son reminds me once again that I need to find greater value in taking the time to carving out simple moments, simple experiences that can live a lifetime and beyond.
Appreciate very much the personal reflection.
Hi James. I am regularly asked by children about my son’s death which was a suicide by hanging. I am also often asked about cremation as I have his ashes at home. Generally these questions come from children aged 6 to 10 years. Do you have any advice on the best way to respond when children ask me how Toran died and what his ashes are?
I am going to start with the second question, but feel free to backchannel me and I would be happy to have a conversation around this because I likely won’t directly answer specific questions and for sure won’t do the topic justice on this reply.
As far as the ashes, my basic response would be that there are different ways to remember those we love. Some people bury them and have a gravestone, others cremate them and keep a person’s ashes to remember them in this way. If they asked for more specifics about cremation, I would tend to just give a general response about using a very hot place to produce ashes from the body, and plead ignorance regarding more specifics (of which most of us can do given that we really don’t know the process firsthand and largely because this image may be difficult for some children this age). I think the one main emphasis would be that because the person is dead, they don’t feel any pain at all when this occurs.
In regards to your question about children’s questions regarding Toran’s death, this is a huge topic that carries a lot of variables in my mind in leading your responses. Again, feel free to backchannel, but I will start with what I feel are a few basic principles to consider, and then give you a couple scenarios that illustrate this without knowing more details from your end.
Principle/Issue #1 – Really make sure that parents have full consent about what will be told to children. Given the understandable range of values and comfort levels with parents around this topic, I would find some way to get a sense of parents comfort ahead of time regarding this topic, or at least send letter/email indicating your general points of discussion.
Principle/Issue #2 – To me, I would communicate differently depending on what audience I am talking to at this age (i.e., general audience vs. children referred to you given their own challenges with depression, suicidality, etc…) Although children this age understand that people die permanently, and certain will voice suicidal statements at times, many really do not have a concept of what suicide really means in practical terms, and I think that there a reasons why this is not necessarily a bad thing (e.g., dealing with questions about why someone would do this that may be difficult to reconcile in their own mind).
Principle/Issue #3 – I would tend to emphasize areas such as a) impact of suicide on others b) permanent act for problems that may change c) alternatives/deterrents to consider and go light on the actual details of Toran’s suicide. My reasoning for this is to not only encourage ways to think about this topic broadly/empathetically, but I do worry that too much details about the act itself can paint a picture in a kid’s mind that may be difficult to resolve/remove given their cognitive limitations. It is why when it comes to specific questions regarding his suicidal act, I would tend to provide what you feel comfortable in giving to the parents, and encourage the kids to talk with them.
That all being said, I can imagine that kids questions come in different forums. If, for example, a kid’s parents felt that talking to you individually would help because his or her current issues in this area, then I would feel freer to speak more openly, although I would still hesitate to give too many details. But if you were speaking to class regarding suicide (e.g., due to someone in the school committing suicide), then I would tend as I said before to limit details, encourage parental conversations, and just emphasize all the factors that involve impact, alternatives, deterrents, etc…
Not sure if this is helpful, and I am sure you could get a range of opinions, as it is challenging topic given the age you have mentioned. I certainly would be interested in hearing your thoughts/experiences in this matter as I know much of your mission focuses on prevention and helping those affected. And beyond the questions, I just want to say thanks for all that you do for others struggling, in taking your own pain and sublimating it into a call to leave this world a better place.
Your article was a good one on discussing the subject of death and acceptance of it, yet it find I find equally disturbing on some level. It is the fact that in this country we are so far removed from life and death, we have talk about it like it was a college course or something.
I didn’t grow up on a farm, but close to it, and saw animals be born and die, at a fairly early age. It was well before age 10 that I understood the finality of death. After, having numerous beloved (they’re all beloved at that age, aren’t they) pets die, mostly run over on the road, I can say that I learned to handle grief much earlier and much better than my peers.
In the absence of seeing death first-hand, it is a good thing that we share with children what it is. In this culture, it seems we protect them from death much more than things that are not inevitable such as drugs, promiscuity and violence.
In case anyone is thinking that pets are not the same as people, yes, I understand that and I am not equating them. What I mean is that seeing death at an early affords you an opportunity to come to terms with well before your adult life. And, hopefully it is a pet or two and not a person in your life that teaches you this.
You bring up very good points, and a couple of specific thoughts came through after reading your comments. One was a personal one. I remember my mom, the city girl from Indianapolis, describing her early experiences with death as she witnessed the regular chicken slaughter down at her grandmother’s farm in rural Indiana. I do think in many ways it was a learning experience for her, as you said your early experiences were for you.
It is interesting, and of course good in many ways, that our insulation from death seems to largely be an artifact of the fact that we experience it much less than those that just lived a hundred years before. As the infant and childhood mortality rates have plummetted thankfully over the past century, it seems that simply through our lack of exposure, we unintentionally have begun to not see it as a natural part of life in the way that people did for centuries before. In reading journals from those in the 1800’s, it seems that many parents and family members felt similar pain in the death of their loved ones, but for the most part, they had little choice but to find ways to carry on (often immediately), otherwise they themselves might quickly be subjected to the same thing. It is a strange paradox – none of us want death to present itself in greater frequency in our current culture, and yet as we strive to live longer and eliminate causes of unpredictable death, it seems that the by product will likely be less ability to see it in its context and deal with it when it comes.
Thanks for your thoughts.
“Griefwalker” on Netflix is a fantastic film about death. From viewing it, I think I would like to work with the dying in the future. I feel so certain about my own death at times and I must remind myself that quite often, many parts of ourself, of parts in our lives, of ghosts, of dreams, of loss, grief and bereavement is healing and nothing truly, to fear. To embrace today is a blessing and something I work towards integrating.