This morning, I woke up to: “Momma! Momma! There is a baby bird shivering outside on the patio!” Oh great. What a (non)perfect way to start the day. I stumbled out of bed to find a baby hummingbird humming its final tune. My heart sank.
Our daughter (a/k/a Finally Five) said, “Is it going to die?” How’s that for 7:15 am?
Where oh where is the Silver Lining here? Ahhh, ’tis an opportunity for a very special teachable moment.
When I realized what the Silver Lining was, I found myself very grateful to be a pediatric hospice nurse and the accompanying experience in communicating with children about dying and death. Seriously. Kind of a strange thing to be grateful for, I know.
When talking with children about dying and death, there are some wonderful guidelines to help the communication process*:
- Begin on the child’s level. Gear the information to the developmental age of the child, remembering that younger children tend to be concrete thinkers, while older children are capable of abstract thought. Also, begin with the child’s experiences. For example, this situation reminded Finally Five of the death of our beloved dog almost two years ago.
- Let the child’s questions guide the conversation. Begin the conversation with basic information, and let the child’s question direct the conversation.
- Provide opportunities for the child to express feelings. Seek clues that the child is open to communication and be accepting of whatever emotion is expressed.
- Encourage feedback by asking the child to summarize what has been heard. This provides the opportunity to clarify misunderstandings.
- Use other resources to encourage dialogue, e.g., books and movies. Additionally, ask the child to name the people with whom they can discuss problems.
- Use the child’s natural expressive means to stimulate dialogue. Examples of expression include games, art, play, and music.
So, engaging these guidelines, I sat down on the patio with her, both of us in our jammies. I told her that the bird was indeed dying. She asked me why this happened.
I then asked her why SHE thought this happened. Finally Five said to me, “because before you came out, I pet it. Because I was trying to make it feel better. That is why it’s going to die.”
For her to have carried this onus of responsibility for even 2 seconds made my heart sink even further. This is a PERFECT example, however, of magical thinking.
As you may recall, the concept of magical thinking is when young children believe in their own omnipotence which means that what happens around them happens because of them. So, Finally Five believed that because she tried to help the (already dying) bird, she could have caused its death. GULP.
After we talked through the fact that she could not have possibly caused this poor bird’s death, she said, “I don’t understand why Mother Nature would do this.” Another zinger. I told her that much in the same way we don’t understand why I had FBC (though I avoid use of the “F” word with her), I don’t have an answer for why this bird is going to die.
Finally Five went on to tell me that she was very sad (it was a remarkably sad situation!). She then asked me if we could bury it. I said that after it died that we could bury it. The problem, though, was that the little hummingbird kept hanging on. And hanging on. I had never seen such cheyne-stokes respirations (an abnormal pattern of breathing characterized by progressively deeper and sometimes faster breathing, followed by a gradual decrease that results in a temporary stop in breathing). Good grief!
We ended up having to leave the house to begin the day. I clearly wasn’t going to bury the poor little thing alive, so we simply said goodbye to the bird. Prior to leaving, Finally Five asked if she could say a prayer for the bird. This is what she said:
I pledge allegiance to this bird that it will be healthy and friends with God in heaven.
While the timing of today’s conversation was not necessarily the greatest (I would have preferred to at least have had my Matcha green tea first!), I’m grateful for this Silver Lined opportunity to talk about life and death, living and dying.
A child can ask questions that a wise man cannot answer.
* Excellent resource for communication with children: Living with life-threatening illness: A guide for patients, their families, and caregivers by Kenneth Doka.