I suppose it’s a function of growing older that Remembrance Day should get more poignant with each passing year. This year a couple of conversations have added to that.
The first was a conversation with one of my daughters, who overhead my wife and I talking about visiting my dying grandad in hospital. “I’d like to see him before he dies,” she said. We explained that she would have to be very brave, because he doesn’t look or sound much like the great grandfather she had seen previously.
When we arrived, he was lying naked in his hospital bed with a tube in his penis and his lower teeth removed – he had lost them on his previous visit to hospital. He was covered in red splotches and his hands were a deep unnatural purple colour that had spread back along his arms. He was groaning slightly.
He became aware of us and reached towards his hand towards me, but was unable to focus or saying anything intelligible. I held his hand for a moment and told him I loved him. My daughter, who is only seven, could only stand by the door.
As we walked out, she said, “I saw a lot of sick people there, but nobody as sick as Grandad Bob.” (For that is what we call him, despite his correct title being “Great Grandad”).
How to best introduce children to death and dying is an area of some interest to me. In my first year of teaching I was in a school where a mother killed one of her own children, and the consequences of that act were deep and far-reaching. An elder brother, who was eight, survived the attack and I remember doing some research at the time (before the age of Google and Wikipedia) and finding out that it was between the age of 8 and 10 that children start to get a deeper understanding of death. It was quite possible, I was told, that the surviving brother would have had no mechanism for understanding the loss and its permanence until he was older.
This was backed up firstly by my own experience. My other grandad had died when I was 8 and it made no difference to me at the time, even though I had loved him dearly. When I was 19, I remember being in conversation with my father about that time and the sadness of that loss suddenly hit me – I was unable to hold back the tears. It was like grief caught up with me when I was ready.
When the 9/11 attack happened on the Twin Towers I remember well the differing responses in my school. At the start of the next day, September 10th, the Year 4 children – aged 8 – were talking about the people jumping from the heights as if it was some kind of computer game, whereas the Year 6 children, only two years older, sat in sombre reflection of the events.
The second conversation happened following my son’s first Remembrance Day Parade as a cub at the local church. We were talking about some of the stories he had heard, including the bravery of amputee soldiers in how they deal with life after tragic injury. We were reflecting that many of those soldiers are looked after in the same hospital were my Grandad Bob is dying. And then he said “I often get my legs blown off in Roblox.” For those of you who don’t know, Roblox is a website where you can play games created by other members, based on a block type system that looks a lot like Lego. The players in the game all run around like little Lego men.
A part of me wanted to scold my son – how very dare he be so insensitive on Remembrance Day!
But he’s just nine. To him death is something that happens in games just before you restart. He’s probably not developmentally ready to appreciate the permanent loss of death and the grief that goes with it, and if he isn’t I don’t want him to have to wallow in it.
But at the same time, I am concerned that the developmental stage of appreciating the finality of death might be being pushed back for our youngsters – especially in this age when we are so focussed on the playing of games in which each individual can succeed and we can all be winners.
It makes me appreciate the fact that we have a Remembrance Day – a chance to reflect on lives ruined through war and conflict. And someday I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to educate my own children that real people do bleed, without being overly-morbid about it.