DADDY DIARIES: Teaching children about death
- The moment you mention your preparedness to face death, or previous night’s dream about it everyone starts making calls to friends who may know someone that casts out evil spirits.
- They will exorcise that ‘evil’ out of your system my friend, accompanied by chants of “Riswaaa!” until the word is erased from your mind.
My sister died three days before her daughter's first birthday. She lost the battle to an asthma attack that simply refused to be contained.
It was on Christmas Day in 2015.
Given the abrupt manner she had passed on, and the fact that the baby was still young, my family decided to hold on to that information until she was old enough to comprehend how her mother put her to bed one evening then disappeared and has never been seen again.
The problem was that none of us could tell exactly what ‘old enough’ meant, and you see Africans are very poor at discussing death even among old folk.
The moment you mention your preparedness to face death, or previous night’s dream about it everyone starts making calls to friends who may know someone that casts out evil spirits.
They will exorcise that ‘evil’ out of your system my friend, accompanied by chants of “Riswaaa!” until the word is erased from your mind.
Now imagine discussing such a forbidden topic with a four-year-old . . . these fellows can banish you out of that village forever.
In our attempts to protect the young girl from traumatic information until we were sure she could handle it, we forgot that there are slightly older children who not only witnessed the funeral but also understood what death means.
Turns out one of them pointed at the grave and informed her that “mama yako alikufa akazikwa pale,” followed by a heart to heart talk from one child to another on how under that gravestone lies the mother she keeps hoping will appear one day.
Next thing we heard was the young girl screaming at a playmate to ‘play anywhere else but not near her mother’s grave because it will disturb her sleep.’
DISREGARD FOR CHILD’S FEELINGS
The other loophole was non-family adults who delegated themselves the role of family spokesperson with wanton disregard for the child’s feelings.
These ones incited her to ask us where we took the mother and when we expect her back.
Unprepared and in haste, we had to sit the young girl down and explain in detail the story surrounding her mother and the grave to mitigate against strangers offering unsolicited help.
The biggest undoing with random people discussing sensitive issues with a baby is that they throw in a few falsehoods and convolutions, feeding an innocent mind with lies.
Such a child is bound to live by wrong information and undoing it can be very difficult.
Fast forward to June 2019, and for over a week my four-year-old son accompanied me on daily visits to where my old man was hospitalised.
He watched him struggle with machines in intensive care, trying so hard to cling to life. On one of the days, he requested to say a prayer they were taught in school.
Standing beside the invalid’s bed with our eyes closed, the young man said his prayer, “Lord we thank you, for the friends so wonderful, for the food so good, and for family so wonderful, Amen!” It was by all means far from someone asking Gold’s help in a moment of distress, but the effort counted.
My dad breathed his last that same evening, sent to the heaven with a thanksgiving prayer from his grandson.
KEPT MY CALM
He keenly watched as people mourned, and Luhyas can wail, wueh! Sometimes it becomes difficult to know who is genuinely heartbroken and who is putting in effort to earn a sitting at the dining table.
I kept my calm, trying to be strong for him and my younger sisters, but then he approached me and asked why I was not joining the rest in crying.
I quickly realised it was necessary to let myself loose for him to understand that it is perfectly normal to grieve, and that daddy too is a human with emotions.
So I shed some tears, leaving the rest to flow inside me in huge torrents. It is evident that the difficult emotional chat we had made things clearer and straight for him, because since my old man was buried he keeps telling me “I’m sorry your father died.”
As if that is not enough he forces anyone else we meet to “tell my daddy sorry because his father died.”
He understands I lost someone, only that it is yet to hit home the man who passed on is his paternal grandfather, the individual he is named after.
Sitting a four-year-old down to discuss death and its implications may have been a difficult moment for both of us, but it has by far saved me the trouble of always being asked to fill gaps. He has closure, knows that death is final, and is aware that it is fine to grieve.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but please open up to that young one and talk. They hear, and understand.