My daughter recently told me one of the girls in her class had a sister that died in a car crash. Tragic, yes? Then she said, “now her sister is in heaven.”
Ouch. I certainly didn’t expect to have this conversation with her so young – she is in kindergarten! Luckily, my daughters haven’t had to deal with loss yet, and so I haven’t really had to talk about it much. But her comment has had me thinking about how to approach it, and how to make it age-appropriate.
I have been hearing a lot recently about how religion offers comfort in times of loss, and it eases the feelings of despair and hurt that losing someone close can cause. I don’t doubt this to be true. But I also worry that by telling my children that someone is in heaven when they’ve died, that they aren’t going to learn real coping strategies for the inevitable loss and tough situations that happen during their lives.
Now, I’m definitely not an advocate for tough love in general. I admit to being a bit of a pushover…I just don’t like to see those little faces upset! My girls are 2 and 5, and up to this point, I have found the best way to teach them to act appropriately is just by modelling the right kind of behaviour. I am kind to others, compassionate, polite, and respectful. I make an extra effort to act this way in front of my girls, and for the most part they are very polite and well-behaved.
However, after saying all that, I do believe in tough love when it comes to these types of “hard topics.” I don’t believe in lying to my children to make things easier on myself. I touched on this a bit in my post about Santa Claus, and my philosophy stands with this subject as well. I am not doing my daughter’s any favours by shielding them from the reality of loss. When they are little, I can make sure to be there for them, and talk them through it. I know that as they grow up they WILL have to deal with varying types of loss – it is inevitable. I believe that honesty is always the best policy.
Kids in this younger age group take things very literally, so telling them that someone has gone to “a better place” or something to that effect will only result in confusion. They will take that to mean that death is a location, somewhere people can go, and maybe return from. They need to know that the person who has died is not coming back. Also, telling a kid that “God took your friend,” or it was “God’s will” that someone died could possibly be very scary and even more traumatizing for them then the actual loss.
So in the end I had a brief conversation with her about what it meant that her friend’s sister went to heaven. I explained that sometimes people say that when a person dies they go to heaven because it makes them feel better. But I was very careful to tell her that heaven was not a real place, and that the person didn’t “go” somewhere, they died. She accepted this and said she understood – I don’t think she did really. I don’t think she can grasp the finality of death at her age. I do feel that I’ve introduced the idea to her though, and I will continue to reiterate the idea of heaven being just another word for death, and that it isn’t a real place.
Maybe you think it’s tough love for me to be this honest with such a young child. I disagree. I think it is loving, and responsible for me to be honest and open with my children about these tough topics, and to treat them like the smart little people they are. They are intelligent enough to understand, and I respect them more by telling them the truth.