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 nine recognize that living things die, but do not comprehend the universality of it all. It is not until children pass the age of nine 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?