Discussing Ancestors and Death with Children
Samhaim, All Hallows Eve, Día de los Muertos and other deceased ancestral holidays are approaching. Addressing the concept of death, ancestors and the after-life with young children frightens many parents but it doesn’t need to. It is the perfect season of the year to discuss the natural cycle of life and to normalize it with our children.
Depending on your tradition, life is viewed either as a cycle with birth and reincarnation, or liner with a start and end point as absolutes. Both perspectives can and should value the entire journey.
If your child has never been exposed to the concept of death, start now. The sooner the healthier. Death is not a bad thing, though our emotional response can hurt at times. It’s Autumn, the leaves are dying, flowers are dying, bugs are dying, and we are celebrating their deaths. Leaves are a great example of death for younger minds. Play in a pile of beautiful fall foliage, toss in a science lesson about the purpose of leaves (they make food for the tree) and explain that they’ve completed their purpose in this life and are moving on. Point out wilting flowers and do the same. If you go apple or pumpkin picking, talk about how the produce IS alive and its purpose is to beautify your home or feed you. Thank it for growing and pick it. This is death with purpose. This will help to instill a respect for nature within your entire family. Explain to your children that death has purpose.
When the exposure of death is more difficult, say a pet, friend or family member, hiding the death only prevents our children from learning to manage grief. Take time out of the day, cancel an appointment or activity if there is one, and respectfully bring up the death. “Aunt Mimi’s life has finished” or “Mittens has gone to (insert your afterlife belief here)” and allow the family to feel the raw emotion together if they choose. Anyone that wants to be alone should be allowed to be alone. When ready, which might take awhile or be right away, bring in the joy of that portion of life. Death IS part of life. Aunt Mimi and Mittens are now ancestors that can be celebrated, called upon for help or still mourned. Young children in particular might want to draw pictures or make gifts for the departed, let them. Encourage their process and even take them to grave site. “This is where aunt Mimi’s body went, so she could go to (insert your belief in afterlife here)” and introduce the concept of a monument, memorial or altar. Let them hug it, kiss it, sit with it or give gifts to their loved one as they see fit.
If your children are already able to process death, now is a great time to let them honor their ancestors as they see fit. In our home we have a picture of great grandma on a small table and every morning before we begin our school work, we make all of our ancestors a cup of coffee and sing a song to welcome them into our day. These little rituals are what build up young minds within ancestral paths. Learning that, in our path, this life is only half of the circle. While we don’t want to die anytime soon, someday we will and that’s just the next thing. Comparable to potty training (and oh is my youngest fighting that next step!) death is just something that happens and there’s more beyond that. Calling upon our ancestors helps them to understand and process our cycle of life.
If your tradition observes one of the coming holidays for the deceased, starting these death and ancestral concepts now can help your child process them before the holiday, which will be filled with emotion, comes. Make a family tree, talk about ancestors, call grandparents and ask about great grandparents. Make it a fun experience to honor the family.
Ancestors are not just blood lines. Adoptive and chosen families are just as strong and powerful, sometimes more so, than bloodlines.