The Most Important Talk You’ll Have With Your Child In Covid TimesBloombergQuintOpinion
In the pandemic, news of a dear one’s death usually comes over the phone. And when S found out that her aunt had died, her 11-year-old daughter T was sitting next to her. “She heard the news with me, and we cried together.”
S says being honest with her daughter and addressing the grief has worked for them. T doesn’t like it when S keeps news of a death from her. The two of them have created small rituals, like baking a birthday cake for an uncle who died. “Weeks later, she’ll suddenly burst into tears and say I was just remembering that person,” S says. “The other day she came to me with a gift my aunt had given her and said you can have it if you want, it’s a memory of her.”
“She wants to talk a lot about people we’ve lost. She wants to hear stories, remember them,” S adds. “I think it’s her way of holding on to their memory.”
As some experts estimate that India may have lost one million people in the worst health crisis after independence, children have come closer to death than ever before. Talking about death is no longer something to be done in whispers after the kids have gone to bed.
These days, it’s the most important talk you’re likely to have with your child.
Younger parents especially are themselves learning to deal with loss and death and having to confront their own mortality in ways they never anticipated and aren't prepared for. And who doesn't dread that question your child will certainly worry about and might even gather the courage to ask you: What if you die, mama?
“We work in that space of bachchas who don't have the luxury of even a toy on most days. Survival is their main concern,” says Sonal Kapoor, founder-director of Protsahan India Foundation (protsahan means encouragement in Hindi), that works to eradicate child abuse. Agrees Nicole Rangel Menezes, co-founder of Leher, a child protection advocacy that works in Madhubani, Bihar, “Their worries include loss of livelihood, fear of starvation, not knowing what comes next.”
The pandemic has been rightly termed a child rights crisis as Indian children, locked at home, must battle everything from increased abuse to a rise in child marriages. Read Protsahan’s report on how marginalised adolescent girls are handling the pandemic here. Both Kapoor and Rangel Menezes, who work with the country’s most vulnerable children, have invaluable insights about helping all our young ones cope with grief.
Rangel Menezes emphasises that talking to children about grief and loss cannot be done in isolation. “There has been a collective loss and any talk with an individual child must sit within the larger context of everybody acknowledging this loss, rather than flexing muscles about beating the second wave.”
“The loss has been so large that we have to create spaces to discuss it in schools and in our communities in the long-term,” she adds. “Only if I acknowledge my loss will I be able to create space for a child who has lost family members, a parent, household help, or a grandparent.”
She’s seen first-hand the impact of such conversations in the “restorative circles” that Leher organises for children in Madhubani. “We found that when the first wave was ending, the circle process brought children back together. It was significant for them to have a space to talk about everything they lost, raising and flagging issues that each one felt was important to them,” she says.
Parents should take the lead in nudging their children’s schools to have these ongoing conversations.
Kapoor says Protsahan uses art as therapy to help children remember the good times they had with the person who died.
Protsahan often uses plants to explain the cycle of life and to reiterate that inevitable maxim: Everything that lives will die one day.
Another idea Protsahan uses is a schematic grief plan. Children can write down a list of people to call to feel better, things to do when they feel sad, and self-care ideas.
Leher’s Project Minor account on Instagram offers pointers, culled from various resources, to talk to children about grief and loss: use realistic words like ‘dead’ and ‘died’ rather than euphemisms, mourn together, remember your lost loved ones together as time goes by so the child doesn't have to do this alone and don't think that death puts a ban on laughter.
“It’s not the easiest thing to explain death to children. Don’t say your mummy, papa will come back. If the child cries or shows emotion, don't invalidate or chastise them,” says Kapoor. “Let children cry, we tell our counsellors. Let them process the stored trauma. Or the body will remember every little bit of the trauma when they are older.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.