With the horrific events in Victoria dominating the news and daily conversation, parents around the country are all facing the same question right now: how can we help our kids come to terms with this? How do we talk about death and loss without making our children anxious?
In happier times, talking about death with children would usually be raised when a pet needs to be put down or you stumble over a dead bird in the park. For example, while I was on holidays we returned from a day out to find a dead cockatoo lying outside our apartment block. My daughter wanted to see it, and it didn’t take her long to work out that something was very wrong. “He’s asleep?” she asked, confused. “Wake up soon?” I suppose I could have just said the cockatoo was asleep, but I thought it wiser to tell the truth. ‘No honey, he’s dead,’ I said. I went on to explain that when people or animals get very sick or very old they eventually die. It’s like they’ve gone to sleep but they won’t ever wake up.
My explanation seemed to work, but talking about an event as shocking and traumatic as the bushfires isn’t quite so simple. Even quite young children would instinctively know that the people killed by the fire haven’t just peacefully gone to sleep. Also the images of burnt out cars and houses are everywhere, while the voices of victims on the radio are recognizably distressed. When we first heard reports on the news, even my daughter, who’s only two, called out “What’s wrong, Daddy? What’s wrong?”. Obviously for older kids, it must be even more confronting.
It occurred to me that one way we can help our children deal with this is to balance the tragic stories with stories of hope. We need to talk about the survivors and the brave men and women who fight the fires. It might also be helpful to do something positive with your kids, like donating to a charity that will help bushfire victims. And it’s probably also a good time to talk about fire safety and fire prevention so your children get a sense that you’re prepared and in control. Nothing can take away the sadness and enormity of what’s happened, but if we remain hopeful it might be a bit less overwhelming for everyone, including the adults.
How have you talked about the bushfires with your kids? What kinds of questions have they been asking you? Have some of the stories and images been disturbing your children?
Yesterday some friends came to visit. They’d just returned from a trip to Indonesia and they brought back some Indonesian picture books for my two-year-old daughter, Birdy. The stories are written in both Indonesian and English, but they sound distinctly Indonesian in style. One of them was about a hive of bees, in which a bear attempts to steal their honey. Defending their hard-earned treasure, one of the bees stings the intruding bear. The second-last page of the book shows the bear crying in pain, then the story ends with the victorious bee dying, because, as we all know, bees can’t survive once their sting is gone.
Birdy was extremely upset by the book’s ending, calling out, “Where’s her Mummy? She needs her Mummy.” After all, modern children’s books don’t usually end with the main character dying a sad and lonely death. Birdy insisted that we create our own ending: “I want to see Bear happy” she said, turning back to the page where the bear was smiling.
I’m not sure whether my daughter’s reaction was just the natural need of a child to feel secure or if she is just so accustomed to our Western formula of storytelling – where conflict and drama are always resolved – that she felt compelled to end the story ‘properly’. Obviously the Indonesian writers felt no need to explain away, resolve or redeem the story’s ending. There was no suggestion that the bee’s death was for the greater good of the hive, or any moralistic overtone that the bear was being justly punished for stealing. Perhaps, as a developing nation, Indonesians are just culturally more willing to accept death and pain as part of life, without feeling the need for the suffering to be comforted, healed or justified.
The same principle comes into play whenever we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar. After the caterpillar gorges himself on his Saturday binge, he develops a dreadful stomachache. The illustrations show the caterpillar feeling sick, with a sad face. A few months ago, Birdy responded to this scenario with the words, “Poor Pillar. Prayer Pillar.” Somewhat taken aback, but moved by her compassion, I said a short, simple prayer for the world’s most popular fictional caterpillar, after which Birdy happily turned the page. “Look, Mum, all better,” she said contentedly.
Now this little role play has become a ritual she carries out every time we read the story. On the one hand, I think it’s lovely that she wants to say a prayer for the sick caterpillar. On the other hand, I don’t want her to be confused when real people don’t just magically get better every time we pray for them. My gut feeling, however, is that even very small kids can learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality, between play-acting and real life. I think, on some level, they do get genre if they’re familiar with the conventions of story-telling. My husband recently made a short film where he played a menacing bank robber. I was worried that it might scare Birdy, but she seemed to understand that Daddy was only pretending. So why was she so genuinely disturbed by the bee’s storybook death? It’s as if she knows that stories aren’t meant to end like that. I can only conclude that happy endings tell the child that they are safe and secure, that the grown-ups in their life will take care of them and that the world is a good place to be. One day, when they’re older, they’ll have to work it out for themselves. But for now, maybe it’s OK to believe that everything will be alright in the end.
Do you think children should be protected by happy endings? How do your children respond when a story ends unhappily?