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Playing With Death

Updated: Apr 14, 2018

We don’t have a good way of explaining death to children in our culture anymore. We don’t talk about death. We try to pretend that it never happens. Until it does.

I work with small children, some of whom come to me with tremendous anxiety. This shows up in school refusal, in hoarding, in OCD-like rituals, in encopresis, in tantrums at the slightest frustration. No matter what the symptoms, when I see a six-year-old with an intact and healthy family who is nevertheless climbing the walls with anxiety, I ask about death. Parents often are surprised by my question. They’ll answer that, yes, grandma and a pet have just died and a good friend has moved away, but surely those things couldn’t be causing tantrums about broccoli. I have to answer that, actually, yes, they could.

Let me see if I can explain how children think about death. It’s not logical, so it’s difficult for our adult minds to grasp. Let’s start at the beginning. Our first lessons around the nature of reality have to do with the solidity of matter. We play peek-a-boo with great delight and eventually come to know that objects are permanent. They don’t just disappear when they’re covered with a cloth or you’ve lost them in your closet. This is a hard lesson to learn, and many children don’t get completely grounded in it. There is some wiggle room. Maybe some things do disappear magically. Adults seem to believe in leprechauns, for instance, but you hardly ever see them. Santa Claus is invisible, too, but he brings very solid presents.

By the time a child is six, he’s usually figured out that the Tooth Fairy is not REAL in the way that his teacher is real. Many children will disdainfully tell you that it’s REALLY mom or dad who puts the quarter under their pillow. Our little ungrounded children, though, still believe in all things magical…and they are often terrified. For every princess in our stories there is an evil queen, for every Santa Claus there is a smarmy “elf on the shelf” who spies on us and reports our every mistake.

This is scary enough, but now, Grandma dies. She was alive and giving you cookies one day, and the next she’s just…gone. Apparently, she has been buried under the ground and no one is going to dig her back up so she can breathe. Apparently, she is going to turn magically into a skeleton, with bones that can fall apart. She was real like a teacher, and now she’s gone like a leprechaun. Does this mean that teachers can also disappear suddenly and irrevocably? Does it mean mothers can disappear? Could I disappear…or maybe a piece of me?

"I see you!"

Play therapy with these children starts with a lot of peek-a-boo. There’s usually some kind of treasure that gets buried or locked in an airtight vault with seriously huge numbers of plastic soldiers set up to guard it. Parents can encourage and leave time for this kind of play at home, too. Gradually, with lots of practice of seeing the treasure unearthed and whole, they can start to appreciate that most things do stay permanent and often the symptoms of anxiety go away. The question remains, though…what about Grandma?

Since American adults don’t want to think about death, and since when these questions come up we ourselves are grieving, we often fail miserably at helping children to understand death. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I still don’t have a perfect answer. What has helped my small clients, though, has been a practical, concrete journey through the life cycle.

A garden is a great place to learn about death, actually. Kindergarteners all know about planting seeds. The other side of the life cycle is just as important. A seed is a baby plant. It grows and produces a lovely flower. And then the flower dies. A good gardener prunes the dead flower and puts it in the compost heap so that it will decompose and become food for the seeds we’ll plant in the spring. Everything on earth has a cycle. People, too. This is the way that living objects are permanent. The life cycle is not magical. It’s logical and predictable. Even snails and fungus are predictable. They lead to a shortening of the life cycle for an individual plant, which is sad, but not sudden, magical, and scary.

You can’t just tell a young child about the garden, though. They have to experience it. I have an inkling that this is why I’m seeing so many six-year-olds with extreme anxiety. They have not spent enough time playing peek-a-boo. They haven’t planted seeds and trimmed the deadheads from the rose bushes. Instead, they spend their time watching movies about stepmothers who poison their children, or playing video games where the characters die but come alive again.

Recently, a child came into my practice who didn’t seem to fit my theory. He was highly anxious, but no recent death, in fact no deaths at all in his experience. One day, though, he made a “guy” in the moonsand. The play hammer was nearby. He told me solemnly that the guy didn’t even know the hammer was there. Without warning, the hammer leapt to life and smashed the guy to bits, leaving only a shard of sand, which became a headstone. I asked him if he had ever known someone this had happened to, and he said, “my father’s father.” Ah. So, he had heard that this grandfather he had never known had died suddenly. And what he was left with in his immature understanding was that fathers can die. Magically. Without warning.

Grownups can be “ungrounded” by death, too. Can you see that this child’s dad, in his inability to deal his own father’s death or talk about it with his son, had contributed to the mystery, fear, and magic in his child’s imagination? Fortunately, this father had the courage to throw open the curtain he had drawn around his father, to bring to light the unfinished business he had there, and eventually to talk with his son his own life cycle, his intention to live a very long time, and his acceptance that when he did come to his own end, he would not be afraid. “Dying is,” he told his son, “like falling asleep, with the earth as your blanket. We can’t help but be sad when someone dies, but we don’t have to be afraid.” Nicely put. This is why we’re given children, I think. They help us to face our own fears…and to grow while we’re living.

BETH PROUDFOOT, LMFT, is a collaborative divorce communications coach and child specialist in San Jose, CA. Permission is granted to reproduce this article in it's entirety, with attribution.

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