A big concept for a little person?
September 7, 2015
With my workshop only a few weeks away, I have been delighted by all the interest in it, and have found myself getting into many conversations with people – parents and non-parents – about the need to feel comfortable when explaining death and dying with children.
I am running the workshop with Amy Hurst, who is herself a mother of three and one who has experienced bereavement with the loss of her first child, who I believe will bring some excellent insights to the workshop. But why, people may wonder, do I have such a vested interest in talking to children about death, when I am not a mother? What insights do I have, and why am I so passionate about the subject?
When I was a child I suffered from death anxiety. I do not know exactly what the root cause was. I had a morbid fascination with death as a small child, as I think most children do when getting to grips with the world around them, and I was very sensitive to films featuring animal death, but was quite obsessed with films and books about medical things, stories of orphans and other deathly topics. In many childhood films and stories, parents die. My death anxiety was never about myself, but always about my parents dying.
My mum and dad had me when they were in their forties and I was acutely aware that they were older than my friends’ parents. This background worry may have been cemented when I was four or five and my dad had a serious heart attack when working away, requiring a triple-bypass operation. I remember me and my mum uprooting to London to be near him in St Barts hospital, while he recovered. My memories of this time are so vivid, though I don’t know how long we were there – it can’t have been more than a few weeks – but it seems like such a significant memory in my childhood, we may have been there months. However I don’t remember being particularly worried or frightened about my dad dying, though no doubt I picked up on my mother’s anxiety. I remember more of the anxiety about living in a flat and I wasn’t sure how Father Christmas would find me and bring my presents. I remember getting a nurse’s uniform that Christmas and my mum walking me to the hospital every day to see him, and I would wear it. The nurses and doctors and other patients fussed over me. We went sight-seeing in London, and had a small tree made of tinsel – the memories of my dad’s brush with death are more hazy.
Other things may have also affected me; the distant death of my paternal Grandmother perhaps? Or my teenage brother’s girlfriend Sally (later his wife) battling leukaemia, and me understanding the severity of what that meant? Though again, I only have happy memories of her then, playing with her wigs and being fascinated with her stripy nails due to chemotherapy, and the delight of being bridesmaid at their wedding.
I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact moment when my death anxiety started, but I can remember the first time I was struck with “the fear”. When I was nine or ten I was on a trip to Blackpool with my parents. We were walking along the pier and I saw an elderly couple sat at the end, looking out to sea. In that moment, I had a rush of panic about my parents getting old and dying, and realising I would get old and die too, and the panic of that nearly overwhelmed me. I asked my mum if she was frightened of growing old, and if she missed her Grandma, or her father? She said she did miss those who had died, but getting older happens so gradually that you don’t really notice. I told her I was frightened about getting old and her and Dad dying she told me not to be, that by time they died I would be grown up and married and with children of my own. I think I was reassured, but not for long.
From that moment on I went through a period of huge anxiety and absolutely hated being separated from my parents, especially my mum, for any length of time. Sleepovers at friends’ houses became impossible, resulting in tears and sleeplessness. On my first ever stay-away school trip to Cornwall I had such a bad panic attack that I had to be put into my headmaster’s room overnight where he tried, and failed, to calm me down until, embarrassingly, I had to be picked up by my parents the next day. Thoughts were obsessional, nightmares common and anxiety was high, it must have worried my parents greatly. I fell asleep only in their bed each night; them putting me into my own room when I had finally fallen asleep.
I cannot remember the exact moment when the anxiety stopped either; though ironically I cannot remember having the same intensity of fear after we had a very sudden and tragic death in the family. My brother Nigel was killed skydiving in 1992, the same brother who had married his teenage sweetheart who had up-until then survived leukaemia. He was 29 and I was 11. Being faced with such a tidal wave of grief from the whole family was almost overwhelming, and again, I can remember this time in great detail. Although I am sure I was grieving myself, this is not the strongest memory. What was most frightening was the grief of the adults, how I would go and hide when people came around, because I didn’t like to see them all crying, or projecting their grief on to me, squeezing me too hard or going on so much about how like my brother I was. I remember the funeral and a kindly cousin taking me out for a walk to talk to me about how I was feeling – the first “adult” who actually did this, though I think she was only about 18.
Tiny me with my dad, Nigel and Sally
Although it is fair, and perhaps clichéd, to say that after such a big loss life was never the same again, and our once close-knit family seemed fragmented; I think being faced with such a death and realising that life continued, helped me move forward. Despite the grief and sadness, I was still cared for. Realising that death could happen at any time to any person, whether they were young or old, sick or well, perhaps shook me out of my fixation on my parents’ death; or perhaps it wasn’t even related, and I just grew out of what was a natural anxiety.
17 years later and I was dealing with a far more personal grief of my own, when my boyfriend Neil died suddenly, aged 34. I watched as his family went through the same white-hot grief my own family did. As I spent time with them, trying to make sense of it all, it was the children in his family that I was most drawn to; his nephew and five little nieces, all under the age of seven at the time. They were the ones I allowed to comfort me and I wanted to spend the most time with. I was fascinated by the way they dealt with their grief, and how full of questions they were, and once again how they seemed more upset by the grief of the adults than they were with their own, being such a big kid myself, I don’t think they saw my grief as as frightening. I tried to answer their questions honestly, even if they were often repeated, confronting and blunt. Answering questions with euphemisms and metaphors seemed to confuse them, while honesty seemed to satisfy them the most. They drew me pictures and wrote me messages of short, honest pronouncements of their grief and love for Neil and for me. They showered me in gifts of their Easter eggs; short hard hugs, put daisy chains in my hair and kissed my tear-stained cheeks. In short they were the best grief counsellors I could have had.
These days I feel more “death literate” than ever, and comfortable talking about death and dying, even helping others through their death anxiety in my day job. Even though my mother’s prediction of me being married with a family before losing either of them turned out to be false, as Dad passed two years ago (another blog post for that one I think), I have come to terms with the fact that you have no control over when people die. I am very keen that other adults also feel death literate and comfortable with their own feelings about death so that they can allow children to express their questions, ideas and conversations about death, dying and grief openly. In my experience, children have a natural curiosity about death rather than a natural fear; and can actually be the best people for dealing with death if we allow them to be.
For this reason I am so looking forward to hosting Conversations on Death and Dying: A workshop for parents and guardians. I think it will be so interesting to hear other’s experiences and talk though ways we can approach the subject of death to little ones, whether they are just asking questions, or have been faced with bereavement. I hope that being armed with death literacy will give parents peace of mind that with their help, their own children can navigate the losses they will face in life, with understanding, support and strength.