Saturday, 21 January 2012


This is written for a friend. You know who you are.

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
-G. K. Chesterton

I don’t agree with the practice of “protecting” children or young people from news of illness or death. As G.K. Chesterton notes, children already know dragons exist.

As a kid I was afraid of many things…the little men who lived under my bed, for example. I used to make a giant leap so that none of them could grab my foot as I got into bed at night. A half-open closet door was the source of terrifying threats to me. My parents used to listen to “Dragnet” on the radio, just after bedtime – and that simple, ominous four note musical opening – dum da dum dum – frightened me half to death. Oh yes, there were dragons. But the worst of them were in the daytime world.

I was scared of some adults. One friend of my parents terrified me although he never raised a hand or his voice to me and I played with his children when my family visited his. There was just something dangerous and wrong that emanated from him and I stayed as far away from him as possible. Years later, when I was thirteen, he came into a restaurant where my friends and I were hanging out after school and his old ability to frighten me witless hadn’t diminished. We didn’t exchange a single word – but the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I excused myself from the booth and left. I ran all the way home.

Children have not learned to over-use the  left brain. Their right brains are sharp and aware. They have keen intuition and instinct – they know stuff you aren’t telling them. They feel emotional shifts and they sense meaning in silences. They know the difference between false and real cheer. They read body language. And all this is especially true when it comes to their parents.

So who are parents fooling when they “protect” their kids from the realities we will all, sooner or later, face? A child who isn’t told, knows something is wrong – and how terrifying it is that it’s so bad that their parents can’t say it aloud. And what if it’s their fault?

I can’t speak as a parent but I can speak as someone who was “protected” in this way. When my mother was diagnosed with leukaemia when I was thirteen, I was told. But visits to the hospitals were curtailed after a month or so…and there was little information other than the level of grief on my father's face. The hospital sent her home a week before she died – and by then, she was so ill, so weak, that there was only enough time to have one short conversation. Just time enough for her to ask me to take care of my family.

I don’t blame my father. It’s how it was at the time. Adults didn’t discuss these matters with children. And Goddess knows, you didn’t talk about death when it happened.

And what I missed was the chance to adjust to the idea of her death with her. I miss the conversations that never were, the lost opportunity to say goodbye…  And after her death, we didn’t talk about it. My father was devastated and I knew it, but so were my brother and me. And there was no one to talk to. Just the silent witnessing of my father unravelling.

I was not, I’m thankful, protected from seeing her one last time in an open casket. I remember my aunt saying tearily, “She looks so natural.” I was outraged. I knew, the moment I saw her, that she was not in that casket. And this was important because in that moment of seeing her, I knew in my bones that our bodies are not what we are. Perhaps I learned that dragons only exist in this world.

Customs and beliefs vary. And no one is going to insensitively bludgeon a child with terrible news. But withholding the realities of life, pretending there are no dragons, in my estimation, says more about the fears of parents than their children. And it’s unfair to rob anyone of the chance to visit a sick loved one, or for a last hug or a goodbye.


Cynthia Newcomer Daniel said...

With you 100% on this one. Children are most afraid of what they do not know - and so are adults, for that matter. Once we put a name to it, once it is spoken of, then we can begin to deal with it. Unspoken fears are very, very large.

Death, sickness and birth used to be open and common. I remember my grandmother's stories of growing up on the farm - they knew the facts of life and death as soon as they were old enough to understand - not because someone sat them down and told them, but simply because they had reached the age of noticing and it was there in front of them.

Roberta said...

Beautifully written. I am glad they at least brought your mother home so you could see her at the end. So important.

I too had something evil lurking under my bed and used to leap into it after turning off the light switch. It is a wonder I didn't break my neck!