Your Early Exposure to Death: Was It Scary Or Curious?

“Children do not respond to death as adults do. Their normal reactions are much more natural, curious and varied, until that is changed by the adult world”.  From Children and Pet Loss.

(This post follows Five Major Influences that help Shape Our Acceptance Or Fear of Dying and Death.)

Before I start, I want to say that every person is unique, so of course the relationship they forge with death over time will be unique, too.

It’s like a lifelong dance we do; each successive loss is a new partner that whirls us about the floor for however long it lasts, then drops us in our chair by the wall again.  Every encounter is different and our perspective on dying evolves with each one.  As John Gray over at Going Gently wisely reminds me from time to time, there is no right or wrong way to look at dying.  Each person’s experience just is what it is, and that makes it absolutely true for them and deserving of respect.

Having said all that, it’s also important to remember that both trauma and beauty are inherent in the dying process.  And with increased, gentle awareness, it’s possible to help ease the first and strengthen the latter.  (That’s actually one of the main goals of hospice and palliative care.)  In practice though, this shift happens a lot faster with a person who’s already open to the good.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while there really is no right or wrong way to look at dying, there are some perspectives that might be more helpful than others.  (Of course, anyone currently reeling with a loss is sacred and off-limits.  Period.  I’m not talking about you trying to change anything right now.  You have enough on your plate.)  But for the rest of us, it wouldn’t hurt to consider at least trying to tweak our view of dying before our next up on the dance floor.  It could make a difference.

So what shapes any given perspective?

Well, early impressions sure pack a punch and go a long way towards forming our view of dying thereafter.  There are a number of variables that feed into whether our first brush with death leans toward the strengthening or scary side, but the top three would probably include, 1) how big the loss is, 2) how the people around us respond, and 3) the manner of the death.

A friend of the hubster’s came for a visit a couple years ago, and when we ventured onto the topic of my work with hospice and my perspective about the beautiful side of dying, he disagreed that there was anything beautiful about it.  He related the story of his first experience with death and, truly, it was not a good one.  He lost his father to illness when he was in his teens, a time when he was particularly vulnerable and unprepared, and he was still, some forty odd years later, carrying a burden from that loss.  In his experience, dying really had been something bleak and terrible; there wasn’t anything good involved to help counter the pain.  Dying was a force that stripped him of the father he still desperately needed and then left him struggling alone in the vast hole it ripped in his life.

So when I spoke about the beautiful side of dying I encountered in my work, he looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.  Because beauty had played no part in his primary encounter with death, it was difficult for him to even consider it as a possibility.

My aunt had a similar devastating encounter with death when her husband died in his forties of colon cancer back in the eighties.  The battle for a cure beforehand had involved five years of grueling, toxic, and unproductive treatment and then, on top of it all, towards the end of the fight his pain was poorly managed (as happened more often than not, back then.)  His death was not pretty and the scars it left for my aunt were profound.   So when my grandmother, her mother, died a peaceful, easy death a little while later, my aunt declined to be in the room when she passed because her prior experience made her believe that dying, by nature, is gruesome and harsh.

I always wondered (privately of course, I never said anything to her) if being present at my grandmother’s benign death might have helped heal some of the earlier trauma but, of course, there was no way to know.

But then my mother, her sister and best friend, died a few years ago and my aunt wound up accidentally being in the room when she passed in spite of her intention not to.  The moment was profoundly beautiful for all of us assembled, a final gift of grace from a woman whose life had been all about love, and it provided me with a means of finally learning the answer to my question.  When I asked my aunt about it later she answered that, yes, witnessing my mother’s good death really did help ease the burden of horror she’d been carrying for so many years.  She felt a little more peaceful with it now.

It was a revelation for me…the realization that our initial perspective on death isn’t written in stone.  That, if the luck of the draw brought us a difficult first death, we’re not helplessly doomed to tremble at the thought forever after.  It is possible to ease some of the fear of dying and create a measure of peace.

Of course first brushes with death don’t always involve a primary relationship, in fact they usually don’t, and these milder, less threatening experiences can provide an opportunity to get one’s toes wet a little at a time.  One of the most common ways that children get a first look at death is through the loss of a family pet or other animal, and these encounters provide a golden opportunity for teaching them how to navigate the dying world with courage and strength.  Children take their cues on how to respond to death (and everything else for that matter) from the adults around them so it’s important what we model for them.

I found the following story on a forum where people were discussing the potential value or harm, for children, of holding funerals for a pet.  I thought I’d include it here because it’s such a great example of how a parent’s response can so profoundly shape a child’s perspective of not only death, but the value of life:

“My parents’ dog died at home when I was two and a half — they hadn’t wanted to put him down at the vet’s. I recall him quite vividly lying there on the kitchen floor on some sheets of newspaper, and I also remember the questions I asked my mom and dad as I grappled with what had happened. I asked if I could pet him, and they said that would be okay. They were quite attached to the dog, which they’d gotten before they were married and had been a fellow-traveler with them in their journey together, and so they both cried a little. I remember trying to comfort my mom, telling her it’d be okay. Later, I watched my dad dig a large hole out in the woods, carry Jonathan out in a fuzzy red blanket, bury him and mark the spot with a large piece of white quartz.

I was very clear on what was happening, for the most part, even at two and a half. I think your daughter would be fine with it at six.

Those events left a very strong impression on me, evidently: they’re my very first memories. Though sort of melancholy, they’re by no means bad memories. My dad still lives in the same house. Occasionally, when I go back home to visit, I notice that piece of quartz a little way out in the woods, half-buried in leaf litter. I think: that rock is a testament to a life not taken for granted.”posted by killdevil at 11:39 PM on May 24, 2007 [28 favorites]

For anyone looking to learn more about how to guide children through the loss of a pet (or anyone struggling with the loss of a pet themselves) The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement has a really terrific website.  A lot of people deny that the loss of an animal relationship can be just as devastating as the loss of a human one.  Whoever runs this website is not one of them.

So our early exposure to death goes a long way towards shaping and sizing our lifetime fear of it, but that still doesn’t mean it can’t change.  I’d love to hear some accounts of other people’s first exposure to dying or death.  Did it influence you more towards acceptance or fear?  (Or no influence at all?)

In the next post I’d like to talk about the influence of the attitude of those who teach us about death.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

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4 responses

  1. I like the way you preface the topic with the suggestion that perhaps it is a good idea to – get in shape – for death? That perhaps life is an excercise and that if we excercise life well, we may ease the transition to death?

    I think I’ve already shared with you my first experience with death: dead lamb in barn. With that as an early cue that life is transitory and death happens, sometimes without any fanfare at all, I think I was on my way to dealing with it, as I think ranch kids do. There’s something about kids who live on the land. They learn that to eat, something must die. With any luck, they learn that death should be administered quickly and quietly and that a suffering beast does not have to continue suffering. It’s a very dispassionate view, I guess. But it helps when it comes time to part with that first really beloved pet…or person. These are experiences that city kids don’t usually encounter.

    • As I was thinking about your experience with the lamb I suddenly realized that my first brush with death was on the farm of a family friend, too. The chicken eggs had just hatched and my mom and the farmer’s wife took me over to the chicken shed to show me. They opened the door and the floor was covered, wall to wall, with tiny, fluffy, yellow, moving chicks. I think I was maybe five years old? I was very excited and wanted to get closer but as I stepped forward my foot caught the door jam and I started to fall forward into the shed. I put my foot forward into the shed to catch myself but accidentally stepped on a chick and squished it. I have the most vivid memory of it going flat…alive and wonderful and soft one minute and then just a flat, circle of deadness the next. It was very confusing and I had a great big, welling, kind of huh-oh moment and then my mother just blew up. I think she was embarrassed. She dragged me back to the station wagon and made me sit alone there for a while as punishment…I don’t really remember how long. I just sat there, that moment when all the puff went out of the chick replaying over and over in my head, knowing something really enormous had just happened that I couldn’t quite understand but feeling like I was very, very, very bad to have caused it. So my first brush with death was killing something. Strange, no?

      BTW, later in life my mother apologized profusely for her response. She was an extremely young mother with too many children and generally overwhelmed. I forgave her. 🙂

  2. Other than plenty of pet cats getting run over, which was always sad for awhile, I didn’t experience my first death of a grandparent until I was 16. She lived several states over and my parents must have felt they didn’t have enough money to fly to their funeral, I didn’t get to attend any grandparents’ funerals as they were all out of state. I feel sad about that. My first funeral was age 21, the death of my friends father. I felt bad because she was expecting her first child, and her father never got to know. I never experienced an open casket at a funeral until I was in my 30’s. AT age 40 w hen a colleague died suddenlly in his mid-forties, I wrote out my funeral wishes, I’eve written my obituary (except for the part where I tell my daughter to add flowery comments about what a good mother I was) and I’m even c ontemplating making a CD of the classical lmusic I want at the memorial. And then, of course, death finally made its blow to me– at age 56 when my beloved son died at age 24. No death will ever be as difficult again. I think David helped me not fear death as much, as he paved the way.

    • Are you less afraid now? Of your own death or of loss? I admit that, while the idea of dying and death don’t scare me particularly, the idea of a profound loss, like yours with you son, terrifies me. I found with my mother though, that it helped with the loss to be there with her at the end and help her through the passage.

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