Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

At the end of a hot summer's day, the month something she knew only as 'the virus' had closed her nursery and padlocked the playgrounds, my three-year-old daughter discovered a rat in the gutter.

“That rat is dead,” she declared with an alarmingly gleeful emphasis on the word “dead”, before poking it with a twig to make sure. Then she added proudly: “That means he's not happy emy-more.”

Until that day, she'd never mentioned the D-word. And I would have thought what a beautifully simple way to interpret the meaning of existence, were I not so skewered by the existential horror of what she said next.

“Daddy?” she looked up at me, all unjaded eyes and ice-cream cheeks. “Are you going to die, like the rat?”

The early years of parenting can be like a long game of pin the tail on the donkey, only it's always your turn, the blindfold is woven from a particularly thick thread of anxiety, and your child is the donkey. As parents, it falls on us to explain all the many ways in which life is harsh, scary and unfair. But death? Do I really want to tell her the cold, stiff truth, and risk giving her too long a look into the abyss? Or do I protect her innocence, feed her fluff, and hazard sending her out unprepared for real life?

I found myself groping in the dark with a very sharp pin.

This is a problem all too familiar to Julia Samuel, renowned psychotherapist and author of two bestselling books about death and bereavement: Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass. "Often we want to protect children because we also want to protect ourselves," she tells me. "Many of us don't want to face the reality of death and that's what makes it taboo. But actually, if we really accept the fact that we are going to die, along with everyone we love, it does change our attitude and choices and how we live in the world in a way that is good for us."

Julia Samuel is a renowned psychotherapist and author of two bestselling books about death and bereavement: Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass. Image: Penguin

Julia Samuel is a renowned psychotherapist and author of two bestselling books about death and bereavement: Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass. Image: Penguin

And the road to acceptance, she says, must start as soon as they're old enough to ask questions. "What all the research shows is that children, however young, need to know the same truth as all the adults around them," she says. "So we need to use very concrete language, like 'dead' and 'died', and follow it with a phrase that means your body doesn't work anymore, you don't feel anything and you're not coming back."

In other words, she says, don't use glossy euphemisms like 'lost', 'passed away' or 'gone to a better place' because that just leaves a gaping hole and a pile of questions. "'A better place' could be a hamburger joint, or name of a new softplay centre for all the child knows," says Samuel. "I once worked with a 12-year-old who thought his dad was in the next village because people had used words like 'gone' and 'lost'. He didn't know that meant death."

Her point is this: "What children don't know they make up. And what they make up can be much more frightening than the truth, however bad the truth may be. And often with children, they make it about them – that they did something bad and that's what has made it happen. It's their fault. After you've told them that the person has died and is not coming back, then you can add on your belief system, whether that's heaven, reincarnation or something else. But you must start with the basic truth."

The trouble is, it's hard enough to be honest with ourselves about death, let alone with our kids. It's such a vast subject to broach. At surface-level, my three-year-old knows that the ants she squishes, the small animals she sees outdoors and "naughty" cartoon characters die. But in a little mind in which days are separated by "sleeps" and "now" is the only legitimate time of day, the fact that people shuffle off – especially the ones she loves – remains a concept as distant to her as iambic pentameter.

Luckily, that parental blindfold needn't be so tight thanks to a swell of children's books that address this exact issue. For Samuel, the gold-standard is Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley, about an old badger who dies, leaving his animal friends distraught until, over time, they come to realise he lives on in their memories. "It's a classic," says Samuel. "Animals are a very good way to introduce the permanence of death because children can see [dead animals] every day which makes it less frightening. Whereas, in the human world, death is very hidden – most people die in hospitals, not at home. So this book is a very unthreatening way of approaching the issue."

Another of her favourites is When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny Brown. "It's about animals again, but also about friendship and the consolation of being together," says Samuel. "Often, one outcome of grief is a new level of connection to others, which is really the most important aspect [of surviving grief]."

My daughter's go-to, though, is Julia Donaldson's beautiful and catchy The Paper Dolls, about a little girl with tiger slippers and a butterfly hairslide who makes a string of paper dolls with her mum. They sing and dance and go on a series of adventures together, from the girl's playroom to the dinner table until – snip, snip – a mean boy (aka Death) appears out of the blue and cuts them to pieces for no reason at all. The dolls' bodies may be snippable, but not their spirit, and their tiny pieces reform and float into the girl's memory, where they join her granny and butterfly hairslide and everything else she's lost over the years. Of course, to understand memory, you must understand time, which my daughter doesn't. But we've made a start.

Some other books to check out: Fred by Posy Simmonds is an uplifting tale about the comforting power of sharing sorrow and reminiscence after a pet cat dies only for his family to discover he was leading an extraordinary double life after dark. In The Cat Mummy (for slightly older kids than mine) by Jaqueline Wilson, a young girl is so sad when her beloved cat dies, she mummifies its remains and keeps it hidden in her bedroom. But when her father and grandparents discover the smelly corpse, they are inspired to finally talk about death in a way they never could when the girl's mother died several years earlier.

Finally, you can't talk about teaching kids about death without an honourable mention to Raymond Briggs' 1978 classic The Snowman, the heart-melting fantasy about a boy whose snowman magically comes to life, whisks him off on a snowy adventure and then melts into a puddle of mush and memories. And despite what Channel 4's festive cartoon adaptation would have you believe, Briggs never meant it to be about Christmas; just dear old remorseless death. "The idea was clean, nice and silent," Briggs said in 2012. "I don’t have happy endings. I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life."

That in mind, now seems a pretty pertinent time – given 'the virus' – to start discussing these things with my daughter. "This is all particularly relevant during the pandemic where death is all over the news every day," notes Samuel. "In one way that's useful because it's making us more aware of our own mortality, but for children, we need to sit down and talk to them about what it is."

So I've started reading some of these books to my daughter now. Not usually before bed, as per Samuel's advice, but after dinner to give her time to ask questions. Which she does with soul-penetrating gusto: When are you dying, daddy? Will a big bad wolf eat you? Why is your granny dead? Are all the rats friends with each other?

And at least now, for most of those questions, I have an answer (respectively: I don't know; it's always possible; her heart stopped; of course they do!).

As for her first question back in the summer: "Yes, I will die someday, like Badger, Fred, Snowman and the Paper Dolls. But that's OK, because while we're here we still have love and love is like starlight – even though some stars died many years ago, on a clear night, they still twinkle on, like diamonds in the sky."

I know she's still too young to fully understand the complexities of existence. But then, despite having had three more decades to think about it, I'm not sure I do either. Maybe I'm the donkey, after all.

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