Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How One Dead Bird Could Change Everything

How One Dead Bird Could Change Everything
A while back my friend Kerissa told me this story, ending with a great question;

When I was a pre-school teacher I once had an irate parent call a conference with me because I had allowed the children to look at a dead bird and told them that eventually everything dies. She asked me how dare
I terrify her son. The funny thing is that her son was not terrified - but she obviously was. I am curious what your thoughts are on talking to children about death in our culture as it currently is?

Of course I have lots of thoughts to share about this!
First, I personally think that as a teacher, my friend did exactly the right thing, and I'd encourage her to do it again. Children can handle much more information than we give them credit for. In sharing 'adult' information with children, I have found the keys to be: honesty and simplicity. If we can communicate simple facts, i.e., "Here's a dead bird" and "Everything dies" without expressing our own emotional baggage, then a child has a great chance of taking in and integrating new information. This of course doesn't mean they will have NO reaction...or no questions. Children will have questions. It's their 'job'.

If one of their questions is: "You mean, even me? I'm going to die?" You can answer with a sincere and matter of fact "Yep, even you, what do you think about that?" If you can just allow time for a child to 'chew on' that bit of information in an interested and curious manner, trust me, they'll be the better for it. (and their answers just might crack you up!)
What if they cry? What if they get mad? What if they feel or show some fear?

Perfectly Okay! Actually that's great!
Those are all perfectly natural feelings and reactions anyone might have about death. And if someone...a child or an adult is asking these questions, the best thing you can do is to be open to the asking and present to their feelings. No need to try tone down, head of or distract... just simply be present with the person having feelings. You might think of it like witnessing. You could say something like 'yeah, it's sad' or 'you sound angry' or 'what seems scary about it?'

These kinds of explorations can open the door to surprisingly deep connecting with a child. And believe me, they'll be grateful as they grow up for this kind of foundation.

I'll let you in on a little secret here....Actually this entire process works marvelously well with adults too! Which leads me back to the mother of the boy in our story....I think my friend's intuition that her student wasn't terrified but his mother was, might be true. Since we live in a culture of, (remember?), *denial* of death, this mom may have a bit of her own unexamined fears about death. Lots of us are carrying stuff like this around... so what can we do?

Let's say you yourself are having some surprising, embarrassing, intense or difficult feelings around death. Someone you know has died. Or... Someone you know is dying. Or...You're getting older and realizing you're actually going to die one day. However it happens, let's say that somehow, you've gotten a 'jolt', and death is on your mind.

What if you could find a supportive friend who will simply try that witnessing idea?

What if they said, "You seem to be feeling sad...tell me about your sadness." Then they just let you talk, with no interruptions, no telling you why you don't have to feel sad or don't have to worry.

Or what if this same friend asked, "What seems the most scary to you about this?" And then just listened? With a warm friendliness. Just listening to you.

I'm a firm believer in people's own innate ability to sort out a confusing situation and arrive at a useful decision or course of action. We just need time, and a little company while we do it. I don't often directly offer 'what I think you should do' kinds of information. (at least I try not to!) Mostly I find that listening well, with the sense that I have complete faith in a person's intelligence and natural abilities, is often the only thing needed for someone to 'right themselves' and carry on.
If you think about this, it's a tremendous relief, really, on either side of the equation. As a friend wanting to help, we don't have to 'figure things out' for our friends in difficulty...we can just keep listening to them while they sort through it all find their own solution.

As someone who is feeling bad, we can just 'unpack our 'bag' and not be sorting through our difficult stuff in isolation. We may not always know the 'right' thing to say or do, but we can always feel good about sharing some good 'listening time'.

If we had lots more opportunity to sit and 'think out loud' about death, with a supportive listening friend, I think a paradigm shift would occur. True healing would be unavoidable! And that's what I'm after.

So.... the next time you're with a young one, and there's an opportunity...a dead bug, a dead bird, a dead tree....to have a conversation about how "everything dies", I hope you feel empowered to open the door.

Until next time,~Marian

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Can You Kill Death

Can You Kill Death?

If kill means conquer, would the conquest be a literal or a figurative achievement? And who would take up such a quest?

Have you noticed how popular Vampire stories have become in our 'entertainment media'? You could say it's about a fixation with blood and violence....but I think that underneath, it's about trying to 'kill death'. It's all about becoming 'forever young'.

Okay, here is where I fall back on my old assertion, that contemporary western culture is deep denial about Death. And since this is so, we just don't have much public dialog that simply includes death. We have plenty of images of killing, and plenty of dying. No shortage of gore-- and movie ratings astonish me in this regard. These get a "PG 13" but serious stories about death are 'for mature audiences'. Somehow it's more creepy and less acceptable to see an actual dead body in a casket, with mourning family in attendance.

Death used to feature prominently in fairy tales, plays and daily conversation. A body, with all of the life gone out of it, was something most people had seen several of by the time it was their 'turn to die'. Everybody knew that everybody 'got their turn'. Living on farms, or hunting game, children grew up with intimate knowledge of both birth and death. Most knew how to wring the neck of a bird, or hunt small animals. Many were taught how to field dress an animal that had been brought down in a hunt. Most had seen animals giving birth...and sometimes seen the newly born animals become the prey of other animals.

These are no longer common experiences...AND, we don't even have literature or media in schools that brings this awareness to children. I saw Chef Jamie Oliver talking to a class of grade school students recently. He's on his own laudable quest to bring healthy food lunches into schools. I was stunned (as was he) to find that many many children did not actually know that meat came from animals!! They could not identify the animal that a 'hamburger' came from. Or even chicken! "Meat" is something bought in a plastic wrapped package in the grocery store, or more commonly, ordered from the drive-through menu. Since we have "sanitized" our shopping experience and we don't see animal carcasses at a butcher shop anymore, this makes someone with a meat cleaver a character from a horror movie!

My friend, Kris Santoro, wrote to me once about the results of this denial in terms of his own experiences around death. Read on to learn about his desire to do things a bit differently.
There are so many flavors of denial when it comes to dealing with death. It isn't just a frustration with the 'unfairness' of it all or a sense of a wrong being done. In terms of the aged and the ailing, there is a certain amount of time allowed, I think, to prepare, embrace, and anticipate the passing. And those moments can be a comfort both to the dying and the those who remain.

But so far in my brief 30 year span of life, Death has never come as a welcome release, but as a thief taking people that were not prepared, did not wish it, and left their families bereft of the chance to 'make peace.' I think this is true of many in my generation (I am thirty.) We are not raised with death as one of life's many dance partners. So when it comes, for many of us, it can be jarring, numbing, or paralyzing. It is only a negative experience for so many of us.

I am not a humble person; I know 3 languages, own my house, love my wife, and lead a pretty awesome existence. I am used to seeing my will be done in the world by applying my attention, my resources, and my skills. I am also not above dragooning friends and acquaintances into assisting me with things I view as important. Death takes no account of my 'gifts,' desires, or abilities. My will, powerful enough in terms of life, can feel meaningless in terms of death.

As an independent young man used to seeing his own way through the trees, this is incredibly galling and painful.

Death and dying have become for me, an implacable enemy hiding in the trees, waiting to pounce on and ravage my dreams and my heart. I find nothing peaceful in it and my greatest desire is to have led a life of meaning and joy before it takes me.

On a lighter note, I plan to raise my children (they are on back order) differently than I was raised. Death needs to be understood as a natural part of life from an early age. It should be respected and incorporated into our rituals and our homes so that when it comes it is as accepted at the turning of season and as inevitable as tick following tock.

For me... well I am still working on not being hideously angry at death. One of my favorite stories is an old Russian tale where a soldier catches death in a sack and beats the tar out of him. My intellect suggests that a world without death would be a grim one; my soul wants a turn with the stick.

Thanks, Kris!
Feel free to share your thoughts. I'd love to hear from you... 'til next time... ~Marian

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