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?