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March 30, 2023

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: Speaking to children about death

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Always speak honestly to children about death.

How do you talk to children about death?

Today I happened upon an episode of This American Life, which interviewed kids who attended a program called The Sharing Place, a kind of peer support for kids who have lost a close family member like a parent or a sibling. It was 5.30am and I was driving to the beach for my walk. I went to change it to something less intense, but then that voice in my head said, ‘Listen’. 

I found it compelling, yet uncomfortable. I couldn’t quite work out why. Then I heard a little girl of nine years describe what the grief of losing her father to suicide felt like; she said, ‘It’s a pain in my tummy, and in my throat. It just sits there, like something that has to come out but can’t.’

As she spoke those words, an old familiar feeling returned to my throat, to my stomach and I realised why I couldn’t turn this podcast episode off. 

I was that child once.

I lived with that painful feeling for most of my childhood.An intense feeling that lived inside my body, that knew no way out. A hidden pain that authored so much of who I am today. It made me feel strange and sad and full of shame. It lived in the unspoken places of my brokenness.

It told me I was different to other kids; that life was meaningless, and death was somehow shameful. 

My father died in a car accident when I was six. He was an alcoholic who regularly drove drunk, until he drove head-on into another car. He killed himself and my schoolfriend’s grandfather.

No one ever asked me if I was okay. I never saw a counsellor. I just went on. I kept going to school and I kept trying to act like a normal kid, hoping that no one would see what was under the surface. I remembered feeling totally alone in these big feelings. Like I had been abandoned. I pretended I didn’t care. I pretended that for so long that I even fooled myself. 

It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I guess it’s how they did things then. Adults believed that children had this capacity to ‘just get over things’ because they don’t show grief and loss in the same way. But for kids, grief comes in short bursts. It can be episodic, and it can go on for years. 

Moments that you would have shared with your parent are a reminder of their absence. On the outside I probably continued to look like a normal kid. I had been living with domestic violence for the entire time so I’d learnt to put up a front before I could speak. But inside I was a very strange and confused little girl who didn’t ever really put words to her loss. If I am honest, I still struggle now.

I developed obsessive behaviours; I became obsessed with my own death, with hand washing, with my breathing. And still no one noticed…

So I kept listening to those children, and I thought how remarkable that someone had the insight to create a program to have these deep and courageous conversations; that a little girl whose dad had died by suicide could say, ‘My dad shot himself in the head’. It was hard for her to say. It was even harder to hear as a stranger sitting in the dark in a beach car park. But it was powerful. It was not sugar-coated. It was real.

A friend once said to me: ‘It’s not the reality that will kill you. It’s the fantasy.’ 

Children need honesty. They need to know what happened. They need to know the truth, no matter how ugly it is. It helps them understand. It helps them find their deep resourcefulness. It helps them grow. It helps build trust. But yes, these are scary places. The real monsters are not creatures that live in dust balls under the bed. 

They are part of our human condition. They are us.

I heard those little kids on the podcast speak frankly about death in the way that children do when they are trying to understand the world and what has happened to them. It was incredibly profound for this 55-year-old woman, sitting in her car in the dark, realising that her inability to navigate her childhood grief had been the foundation stone of who she is as an adult woman now; that the pain still lived in me. Its hold on me is ancient. I felt this strange sense of relief hearing those children speak of death and loss like it is normal. Hard, but normal. Because it is.

Always speak honestly to children about death.

They get it.

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