Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
These are the first lines of a poem by Henry Scott Holland, written at the turn of the 19th century. They are as true now as they were then. In them, death has been accepted, because there is an acceptance of separateness in the ‘I am I and you are you.’
In early years, children generally have no concept of death. They often know about birth – a new baby brother, sister or cousin arrives and suddenly the child who was the baby becomes the big one. Or they know about baby animals and buds every Spring. When the flowers die and Autumn then Winter arrive, it is the nearest many children get to death, and it doesn’t seem too bad, as they know there will be a new Spring.
When loved grandparents or older relatives pass away, little children can feel terribly sad, but still it might not have sunk in that this thing called death will happen to them one day. It is often not until they are able to reflect on themselves as quite separate human beings to their parents that children will suddenly realise the full impact of their mortality. Some children have this realisation thrust on them early, with parental or sibling loss. It can be experienced with extreme cases of parental separation too, where contact with parents or grandparents is suddenly severely limited. Experiences of extreme loss throw children and adults into a state of mourning. Mourning is a process where we realise with great difficulty that the person we thought we had for ever in our lives will no longer be there.
Children can appear not to mourn when a loved one has passed on. They can appear to be remarkably unaffected. Adolescents are more likely to react but even that isn’t guaranteed. The shock of the reality is so great that some children and adolescents take a little while for it to sink in. This is because they need to experience themselves as separate from the person who has passed on. If they haven’t yet separated in normal terms of growing up, they can’t just suddenly do it. To feel one’s separateness, one needs to feel one’s loneliness. Loneliness is a universal human state, for we are born alone and we die alone.
A sense of spirituality and religion appears to ease this human state of loneliness, but in a paradoxical way, we need to know our loneliness in order to reach out to a spiritual world. There is no getting away from the reality of it, and most of us don’t even like to think about it, so we shy away from thinking about death. Yet it is all around us, and we live it daily, with the passing of each moment. When a youngest or only child passes through childhood landmarks, his or her parents feel a particular yearning and sadness, for this will be their last experience of the lower school play, the family holiday, the school prom, the 18th birthday etc. Poignant though these moments are, the fact that we can have them is what makes our lives so rich. We are conscious beings, aware of and appreciative of our every living moment, when we remember to think about it. And with those poignant moments, we do remember to think about it.
Passing on is what we do. With each moment we pass on, and that little phrase has both a spiritual meaning i.e. the spirit passing on to another state but also a humanist meaning i.e. the passing on from one generation to the next. So, perhaps some of these thoughts can be used to help children who mourn. Thoughts such as, ‘Grandad would be proud of you,’ ‘Mummy’s star is looking down on you,’ are helpful thoughts. With them, children can form a new relationship with their loved ones. They can be helped to get a sense of them still being there, around them and inside them, even though they will not see them again. The sadness does pass, and mourning is achieved when our separateness is accepted, giving us room to reach out to experience what we have lost in a different way.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists