Death has replaced sex as the great taboo in our society. Children are protected from it. It is spoken about in hushed voices and forgotten as soon as possible.
If your child faces the possibility of the early death of either himself or one of his brothers and sisters, the often used explanation "People die when they get very old" is not enough. It is difficult, though, to talk easily about such a potentially painful subject. Perhaps we need to feel comfortable with our own feelings before we can share them with others.
Death is a natural part of life. We are all working towards it from the moment of birth. Personally I believe it is a transition, the next step. Only the smallness of our minds make us see it as failure or disaster. Something goes at death - the life force, the spirit, the soul. Call it what you will, it is gone. What is left behind is the empty shell like the cocoon after the butterfly has flown.
I don't know where that spirit goes -no one does for sure. Personally I believe it moves on to somewhere better. Many people who have died but been resuscitated, speak of a reluctance to return, of seeing lost relatives again and feeling surrounded by love. Stories abound of people smiling at the moment of death or speaking of seeing a light.
When children ask what happens when you die, there is nothing wrong in admitting you don't know. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can talk about your own beliefs and/or those of other people. You might want to mention some of the ideas from the previous paragraphs. Be sensitive to their questions so you proceed at their pace, neither holding back what they need to know nor rushing ahead into topics they are not ready for yet.
Your child may want to talk about what life after death might be like. In particular, he may like the idea of leaving physical problems behind on earth, of there being no muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis or cancer in heaven. However, even the most wonderful after-life can sound frighteningly lonely without Mum and Dad. Remembering people you know who have already died and Jesus (if you are Christians) can help both your sick child and his brothers and sisters to feel someone will be there to care.
"If you are good, you'll go to heaven" is an idea many children hear but, of course, no child is ever completely good. Yours may need reassurance that whatever happens after death is dependent on God and his love rather than on whether your child wrote on the wall in felt tip pen.
By protecting children from the facts of death, we can easily give the impression death is very frightening. Why else would we hide it? Why else would we not take them to Great Grandma's funeral?
Our children see death every day on TV. The news shows violence and destruction, both natural and man-made. Actors depict death from a multitude of sources - guns, poison, arrows and accident. The only type of death rarely shown is the natural one occurring peacefully in bed. It is easy for young children to assume all death is violent, that the trickle of blood from the actor's mouth is natural rather than added for dramatic effect.
When talking to your children about death, make it clear the image on TV is a distorted one. Although it may be preceded by pain and illness, death itself is not terrible for the one who dies. It is a step into the unknown but not frightening in itself. We cry about it because of our own pain, our own loss and our own loneliness.