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Talking About Hard Things

Ever since my oldest daughter died last fall, I’ve become painfully aware of just how pervasive “death talk” is in our language. We say things like, “That kills me” or “I could have just died” or “I could have killed her for saying that.” We all treat death a little flippantly, and don’t even hear ourselves do it.

I recently wrote about disturbing ways in which the U.S. society today interacts with death in the post “Death As Entertainment.” The games and horror movies tend to reinforce our desire to make death impermanent, less serious, and easier to ignore or push to the back of your mind. Many of you wrote comments sharing my distaste for this.

And then a friend wrote a very intriguing comment on my first Not Me! Monday post, in which she describes the struggle she faces in talking seriously with her children about hard things.

I think Finding Nemo was excellent but those were things far removed from us (the deep ocean) and I could explain them. But to explain the murderous heart of an insane man? I just don’t know.

How should we talk with our children about hard things, like death and cruelty and cancer and brain injuries and mental illness?

It would be very easy to say to myself that avoiding those conversations is the best thing for my children. In fact, I’ve done that in the past.

And I don’t think I’m alone. Many of us parents attempt to insulate our children from the existence of bad things. We don’t take our children to funerals or visitations. We avoid watching or listening to the news in front of them. We don’t drive through bad parts of town where our kids might see how the less fortunate really live. We have conversations about those who are sick or having surgery in private or in hushed tones.

Is insulation a good approach? It is easier, certainly, than trying to explain to a child what happened clearly but without going overboard, and then answer their questions. But is it better?

Since Elli, our firstborn daughter, died last year, we’ve had countless conversations with the kids about death. They wanted to know what happened, why it happened, where Elli is now… And that last question has been particularly confusing for them. They knew that the ambulance took Elli first to the hospital, then they saw her in the funeral home, and now she’s buried in the cemetery… but we believe in an afterlife, so her body is in the ground but her spirit is with Jesus? Shew! That’s enough to make an adult’s head spin!

But they ask really good questions. Often it’s the same question, over and over (especially with Little Girl), but I’m glad they are talking. (I ask the same questions over and over too!) And they seem to grasp at least some of our stuttering answers.

And they accept easily (at least, at the ages they are now), and more easily than I do, the answer “I don’t know.”

Several years ago we read the book “Teach Them Diligently” in a small-group Bible study about raising children. The author, Lou Priolo, talked about becoming aware of and interacting with our children in the “milieu of life” or in what happens naturally, every day. If I try to keep my children protected from the bad things in life, we won’t have those natural opportunities, those teachable moments, to have really open and honest conversations about them.

And they won’t experience the natural peeling back of the artificial that such events brings. There’s nothing like having a classmate or family member get critically injured or die to remind a person of their own mortality. And that, at least temporarily, points out how foolish it is to obsess over having the newest cell phone or prattle on and on about who dissed who in school or to fight with your parents about taking out the trash.

(Incidentally, I asked Big Boy to carry a bag of laundry from the bottom of the stairs to the washing machine, a distance of oh about 50 feet. As he dramatically dropped the bag to the floor, with a sigh far beyond his years, he declared, “So that’s what it feels like to be a slave.” I took advantage of the “milieu moment” to properly define the words “slave” and “help.” I am not sure if I avoided lecturing and engaged in an actual give-and-take though — turns out actually conversing with a child instead of preaching to them take a lot of practice.)

So I’m trying to find a balance between the two extremes: treating bad things flippantly, like they’re not so bad; and pretending they don’t exist at all. I’d love to hear from you on this. How do you approach the tough things in life with your children? What has worked and what, if you don’t mind sharing, has not?

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