Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My (Gifted) Kids Talk About Death A Lot

"I'm going to name one of my children after you," our youngest told my husband one night. "So when you are dead, I will always think of you when I say their name."

He was so excited to tell my husband this, because to him it showed how much he loved his dad.

And my husband and I were not surprised at all to hear him say something like this. We were amused, and a little sad, but not surprised at all. Our kids talk about death a lot and it's something we've learned to handle.


This is a photo of my kids playing on the swings
one morning and missing the bus. It has nothing
to do with death,and everything to do with
 living a good, happy life.

Two of my kids are in the GATE program at our school. GATE is "Gifted And Talented Education." The third, only six years old, has not yet met the criteria to be in the program yet, but I have a feeling it will happen. He's a strong reader and writer, he's skilled at math and problem-solving, and he's emotionally intense and talks about death a lot.

Gifted kids are like that. They think about death, talk about death, ask questions about who is going to die when, and what happens after we die. They worry about death and also plan for what will happen next. And while this seems morbid and depressive, this is normal for gifted kids.

Their questions usually come at bedtime, because that's when my kids finally slow down physically and become introspective and thoughtful.

My oldest, now eleven, will occasionally cry and ask, "Is it nothing but blackness?" in his terrified nighttime whisper. I know he wants me to comfort him. Bedtime is not the time to go into existential questions. But I don't dismiss his question. Instead, I rub his back and encourage him to focus on filling his days with things he loves and making people happy. I encourage him to make the most of his life here.

My middle son talks about funerals. Not too long ago he asked my husband (at bedtime), "Will you be sad at my funeral?"

"Very sad," my husband said. "But usually parents die before their children."

"Oh good," said the middle. "Then I will totally go to your funeral."

The middle one also looks forward to what possessions he will get when his older relatives die. Not because he's greedy - but because he wants special mementos to honor his loved ones.

The younger one does similar things. Like I mentioned, he's already planning to name a kid after my husband (no mention of using my name yet). He's also convinced he's going to die after his brothers and tells them frequently that he'll think of them when they are dead and they believe him.

All of the boys have an order in their heads of when certain people might die, based on their age. To them, life should follow the logical process of the oldest dying before the younger people. But life isn't logical. People they love have died, and sooner than they should have. The boys didn't like it, but have faced it. We talked about all of their feelings - anger, sadness, frustration, confusion, fear - and cried.

I just finished reading Station Eleven, and in that book the author tosses the reader back and forth in time, before a devastating plague and after. When she tells about the world before the plague, she also indicates how much longer that character has to live. She writes things like, "in ten days, she would be gone." While I was reading, I noticed my heart rate was elevated and I felt anxious and upset. I know I'll die someday, but reading this book and knowing the specific amount of time characters had left was very upsetting.

Before I had kids, I think I was able to pretend death wasn't coming for us all. But having children gives you a heightened sense of mortality. And I won't deny that thinking about my death makes me anxious. And scared.

Our society doesn't really cope with death very well and often avoids explaining death to young children. Did anyone ever tell you that someone death was "just like going to sleep?" What a horrible thing to tell a young child! No wonder kids don't want to go to bed when we tell them things like that. I don't even like to say we put our dog to sleep.

I'm not saying I've found the perfect way to explain death to my children, but because of how my kids think and talk, I've had to develop a process for answering their questions. I try to be honest and share both my sad feelings at the loss of someone I love, but I also share with them the ways I cope with grief.

We look at photos together.
We share stories and memories.
We talk about how we would want to be remembered.

I'm not saying our family copes with all of this death talk perfectly, but we're getting better at it. How do you help your children deal with their fears and anxieties? How do you help them deal with life and death?