Children must learn about grief – protecting them from sad news is never the answer

I could jump up and slam the radio off when it blabs news of the many horrors going on in the world while my children and I are having breakfast – but I don’t

Written by Shaparak Khorsandi in The Independent 1 year ago (Friday, May 14th, 2021)

Michael Morpurgo is a big deal in my house. Both my children love his books, and because they have a whopping age gap of six years, I am able to enjoy his books with them twice.

In an interview this week, he spoke about the darker themes in his children’s books and said: “We can be overly protective of the sensitivities of children, rather than helping them understand that there are aspects of life which are very, very difficult.”

He’s quite right. I could jump up and slam the radio off when it blabs news of the many horrors going on in the world while my children and I are having breakfast, but I don’t. We talk about sadness. We acknowledge the news and no question is brushed away.

I remember what it was like being a child during the Iran-Iraq war when my teenage uncles were at the front. Sometimes, in the quest not to “worry the children”, and even though their fear and heartache was palpable, my parents all but did impersonations of Mary Poppins and Dick Van Dyke, pretending everything was a jolly holiday. It meant we kids feared, not just for our family in Iran, but also our parents’ sanity.

Morpurgo’s assertion that children learn empathy by being shown what other people go through in stories is spot on. My father lost his father when he was just seven years old. He grew up at a time when people genuinely thought that children “forget” pain and grief, and could be distracted from it much the same way a dog could be distracted with a juicy bone. “Your dad is dead, but look, look at this toy! It spins!”

My dad once told me he was 14 before it occurred to him that waking up in tears every morning wasn’t normal. Anyone who has lived with a person who hasn’t processed their grief can attest to the fact that their hoarding can be unreal. My father makes the home in Steptoe and Son look minimalist.

When my friend lost her husband over the summer, her seven-year-old daughter, one of my daughter’s best friends, was left bewildered and bereft. There’s nothing sadder than seeing a little child grieving, dealing with such avalanches of pain. You wonder how their tiny little bodies can withstand it. But they can, and if you let them be sad without trying to “cheer them up”, let them openly express and experience what they are feeling, let them know you are by their side as they do so, they will be able to process it, accept it. It will be far less likely that when they are adults, their spouse will come home to find that there are two fridges, a four-foot headless garden gnome and five boxes of “antique” Tibetan prayer wheels in the front room.

Despite the fact that we had escaped a bloody revolution in Iran (in which our favourite uncle was killed) to live in the UK, watched the Iran-Iraq war on TV and regularly got news of the deaths and maiming of people we knew, and had terrorists plot to kill my father in London (see my book, A Beginner’s Guide To Acting English, out now in all good charity shops), my parents made Herculean efforts to make us think everything was OK. But there was no waving the fear, sadness and anxiety away. I bottled it and had decades of catastrophic thought patterns and anxiety.

In the days when we had “telephone tables” in the hallway and you had to have all your conversations in the central part of where you lived, so everyone could hear you, privacy very often wasn’t an option. My children will never know the heart-in-mouth excitement of tiptoeing as near as you dared and eavesdropping on a juicy conversation, your adrenaline  looping the loop as you imagined the side of the conversation you couldn’t hear.

Likewise, the delightful torment you could inflict on a sibling when they were on the phone to someone they fancied, and at an age when they were so easily mortified. I remember tickling my brother when he was about 16, talking to a girl he was dippy about and him trying to donkey kick me away while desperately trying to sound calm and cool.

One thing I learned very quickly when phones were in communal areas was my parents’ voice when someone had died. You could tell it was Bad News in the first second of the call. Us kids would have to wait until the phone was down before we learned which family member or friend had died.

Sadness and death are a part of living. Morpurgo is right when he says that not all children’s stories need a happy ending. Children can handle the sadness in life, too, if we let them and support them with honesty.

Filed Under: Column, The Independent, Writing