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Talking to Children About Death

This post contains spoilers for Doctor Who, so stop reading if you haven’t finished the season but watch the show.

We caught up on most of the season’s end of Doctor Who this weekend.  We still have one episode to go.

We knew what was coming, so the twins kept putting off seeing the last three episodes.  But they finally felt ready-ish to watch it all go down, so we got into our pyjamas and piled into our bed and watched.

It was sad.  It was sickeningly sad because there was enough time for the characters to have regrets (or… not have regrets because one of them unrealistically had zero problem with what had happened…  Really?) and say goodbye and think about what was about to happen.  We all cried.  Well, three of us cried, but I like to think that the fourth member of our family was crying on the inside.  We all liked Clara and change is always hard, even when you know that River Song is coming.

The episode after “Face the Raven” was harder because it began with a concept that is simple and obvious but makes you swallow hard nonetheless when you hear it stated aloud: from the moment you are born, death is written into your story.  We all have death hanging over our head every single second of our life.  We know it is coming and there is no way to stop it.

If that doesn’t make you want to pull the blankets over your head, I don’t know what will.

The kids were sad after the episodes, not as much about Clara but more thinking about death in general.  We cuddled and talked about how hard life was knowing that we have to lose people we love.

I have no regrets that we let them watch Doctor Who.  I don’t like it when they’re sad, and I certainly don’t want them to obsess about death, but I also don’t think it does them any favours to pretend that death isn’t a part of life; that death is a very permanent state.

I think it’s better to let them realize that because it is permanent and irreversible, we should do everything in our power to protect people from death when we can such as ensuring they have food and shelter and health care.  We should work to avoid war and support efforts to reduce violence, both of which are a waste of human life.  That, as humans, we should do our best to help other humans so we can all actively work to put off death as long as possible.  Everyone should get a fair shot of living as long as they can.

I would rather have them sad because they lost a favourite character than have them indifferent playing a video game where they are the aggressor, blowing off a human non-player character’s head.  I would rather they consider the enormity of death and therefore actively work to help others than minimize death and have them dehumanized to the point where they can hear another person is suffering and not have it affect their day.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to cry.  It’s what happens when you have a heart.

It’s good to have a touchstone, a relationship you can think about to put other things you might feel dismissive about in perspective.  I can always explain to them, “This person in danger is someone else’s Clara, and we need to help that ‘Clara’ because someone else out there is that ‘Clara’s’ Doctor who will mourn her for 4.5 billion years.”  They saw the look on the Doctor’s face.  They saw his fist hitting the wall 4.5 billion times.  They know what love is.

Side note: Tomorrow is #MicroblogMonday.  So get writing, please.


1 A. { 12.13.15 at 7:53 am }

I do really love the idea or turning a scary conversation about death into a teachable moment about how to live (and compassion and the common good). That’s the only piece we can control.

2 A.M.S. { 12.13.15 at 9:52 am }

I thought it was a perfect portrayal of those early stages of grieving. If all it took to bring loved onesback was facing my true fears every day so that I could punch a wall 4.5 billion times to undo death, I absolutely would have.

it took them this long to make me like this Doctor. They finally made him seem real by giving his pain a focus. I couldn’t settle down with the mania.

3 torthúil { 12.13.15 at 4:12 pm }

This is a great post. I’ve been struggling with the idea of death and mortality for the past few years. It started with getting older (duh) and then the struggles with infertility brought things into a sharper focus. When I say struggle I don’t exactly mean that it interferes with my everyday life, but it’s always in the back of my mind; I’m always seeking a resolution and the awareness of mortality puts a filter on everything I experience. I had sort of a respite after my daughter was born, but in the past year with my parents facing serious illnesses it’s back at the forefront. I agree with everything you say here and I will come back to these thoughts when AJ is old enough that we can talk about death.

4 Mali { 12.13.15 at 5:26 pm }

I think it’s a lovely way of talking to children about death. We don’t grieve if we didn’t love, and the love is always worth it.

More personally, my ectopics first brought me face to face with the idea of my own mortality. Before that, I felt invincible. That, and coming to terms with living life without children, have brought me to a space where I’m a lot more at peace with the idea of my own death. (Though of course I still have my head in the sand and I’m hoping that it is many years in the future!)

5 deathstar { 12.15.15 at 11:19 am }

A couple of years ago Boo started to ask a lot of questions about death. In particular about our old dog, Sampson, whose picture and ashes are still on my altar. I told him that if no one died that the planet would be so overcrowded that there would be no room for anyone to even walk down the street. Since his grandmother passed recently, the questions have come back in earnest and I’ve told him the Buddhist views (minus the existential or metaphorical angle). His dad tells him that once you’re dead that’s it and there’s no more. He seems fine with his parents not believing the same thing. He just knows that you can’t visit a dead person and they don’t send you Christmas cards.

6 Tiara { 12.22.15 at 11:58 am }

I needed this today. Thank you for writing it.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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