“I’ve got bad news, Mummy,” my four-year-old boy said as he rushed to the kitchen. “Oma died.” In a low voice, he broke the news of his grandmother’s death to me as soon as he learnt it from my husband.
I crouched down and hugged him. “We won’t be able to see her anymore,” I said. “I am sad, but will always remember the last time we spent with her. It was a beautiful afternoon. Didn’t you take pictures of Oma and her garden?” We sat down to browse the photos and relived the moments.
Open conversation about death is a taboo in the Chinese culture. People are concerned about bringing misfortune to themselves and their families. We often use euphemisms like “he is gone,” or “she is no longer here.”
My son’s grandfathers died before he was born. I was uncomfortable using the word “die,” and used to tell him that they were “looking upon us in the sky.” This had invited a barrage of questions: “Will they come back tomorrow? Are there houses in the sky, too? Can I visit?”
Then, at the New York Public Library, I stumbled upon a Japanese picture book translated into Chinese called The Ghost Cake Shop (“小鬼蛋糕店”). For the very first time, I used the word “dead” to explain the story. My son was intrigued by what happened to the father after his death in the book (as well as the various cake flavors). It was a light-bulb moment when I realized that as little as a child of four, his heart could be large enough to take both sweetness and sorrow.
It’s love, actually
An enormous number of grandparents devote their time to childcare in China today. In families with children under the age of three in Shanghai, nearly 90% of the grandparents step in to raise grandchildren, and over three-fourths of the elderly live with their grandchildren.
Strong grandparent-grandchildren relationships may deter some adults from grieving with children.
“After my father passed away last year, my mom told my son that his grandpa was up in the sky,” said Sophie Sun, a mother of a preschooler living in Shanghai. “My mom doesn’t allow my son to visit his grave either,” Sophie said.
Taking young children to burial grounds to pray to late family members on the traditional Tomb Sweeping Day, observed by Chinese for centuries, is frowned upon. Chinese believe that cemeteries contain too much yin energy, which can take away kids’ yang energy, making them weak.
It is painful to show our true feelings about the loss, but an open discussion with children can be healthy, too. A recent study by University of Buffalo showed that animated movies may be a springboard for further conversations on death and dying. Interestingly, two of the most recent family films that we watched – Moana and Born in China – don’t shy away from the subject.
Steve Jobs, at his Stanford University commencement speech, said that “death is the destination we all share.” Similarly, Laozi’s Daoist classic Dao De Jing has a clear insight into death: birth is followed by death (出生入死).
Before my mother-in-law’s funeral, my husband and I picked different days to read The Goodbye Book and The Dead Bird with my son, who said he didn’t know how he would feel at the funeral. We assured him that was completely OK.
When I held his hands to throw roses onto Oma’s coffin at the ceremony, he was crying his eyes out. He said it was because he saw my and many others’ tears. From others, he was learning to mourn.
“You are wrong about grandpas in the sky,” my son corrected me soon after the funeral. “They are buried underground like Oma.” Kids tend to be more open-minded about death than adults.
They also have their own thoughts about closure. Nearly a month after the funeral, my son told us that it was fine to continue talking about Oma, and we still loved her. “We can play her favorite puzzle games!”