When should children be taught about death?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 16, 2004

Jack Tennant is the publisher of the Cochrane Eagle, host newspaper for this column since he launched the paper nearly three years ago. He's one of those lamplighter people who embrace life for all its worth and inspire others to do the same.

He also has some down-home-on-the-farm wisdom about introducing children to the topic of death and dying.

The subject came up while Jack and I were sipping from our personalized coffee mugs at Java Jamboree one afternoon recently. He took me back to the 1940s, to his more youthful years growing up in the southwestern Manitoba community of Arrow River, population 25.

When he was around 10 years old, his faithful companion Lad, a collie cross, died.

"With my grandfather by my side, I put Lad in my wagon, carried him out to the pasture, dug a grave, buried him, and placed a small wooden cross on the grave," Jack said. "Burying the dog was my grandfather's way of teaching life to me, that life is a complete circle.

"We have to look after our friends and relatives in death as in life."

Not many years later as a teenager, Jack remembered that valuable lesson. He helped dig the graves for all four of his grandparents.

While we're on the subject of when and how to introduce the topic of death and dying to our children, consider this letter from Cochrane coffee companion Andrea O'Connell:

I ENJOY reading your column and have found the discussion on mortality these past weeks particularly interesting. I noticed, however, that most of the comments are from people who seem to have already come to terms with their eventual death. I thought, perhaps, it might be worth expressing my view as a young adult who has not yet reached that point.

I believe there is a natural process involved in understanding mortality, in which we are introduced to death in increasing degrees, from the loss of a pet, to perhaps a classmate, our grandparents, and, eventually, our parents. When this process is disrupted by the sudden and premature death of a close family member, we are forced to see life as a fragile and temporary thing. Much of the joy and innocence are lost.

I have heard it said that God will never give us more suffering than we can tolerate, and I believe this to be true. The human brain is designed to take in only as much information as the emotions can handle. This can be seen in the reaction of a child to the death of a loved one, as he alternates between tears and laughter, grief and playfulness. These are stages in the grieving process and steps involved in the acceptance of our own death, whenever it comes.

Although it is a human tendency, when we come to comprehend a complicated subject, to feel the need to make others see it as we do, nature doesn't need our help. The young will accept the inevitable in their own time. As a song by Gladys Knight states, "Cherish the children, let them be children; there will be time for them to cry, there will be time for them to die."

—Andrea O'Connell, Cochrane

ANOTHER regular at our coffee table adds this recommendation:

HAVE YOU read The Five People You Meet in Heaven? It's a thought-provoking little book by Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie. It made me wish to live my life more intentionally until I am fully used up. I read the book several days ago and it's still on my mind. I think this may be a useful little tool to help the younger generation ponder their mortality. I intend to get a copy for each of my children.

—Leanne Forest, Edmonton

CLEARLY, this subject is very important to many of you. I'll keep it going for at least one more column.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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