As adults we add layers to the death and dying experience. That statement is not meant to be negative or positive, it is just my experience. When someone we love dies, as adults, we will likely go over the details on a continuous loop in our minds hoping to make sense of the death or find the meaning in the specifics. Young children don't tend to have this inclination - not in my experience. In fact, children will develop an understanding of death in its simplicity (unless guided to do otherwise) - that death means that the body and mind stop working - the heart stops beating, the lungs stop breathing, there is no hunger or feelings of pain. The body is no longer alive.
When our children have wanted to know or understand about their brother, that is what we have started with - he died and biologically that meant his body stopped working and he is not alive. We have talked about and showed them pictures of him in our arms and we have taken them to the cemetery where he is buried. When they have asked how he died we have explained as simplistically and age appropriately as possible: he was born before his body was ready, he was too little and so he died. When I reflect on how we have handled their understanding that they had an infant brother who died, I think we did very well, they are well adjusted children.
But there are nuances to death - the layers. The hows, whats and whys that we add as our children grow and reach developmental ages that have them asking more questions and wanting more details. With our oldest we were so keenly aware as he transitioned into a new understanding of death and asked more refined questions that we remained vigilant of the messages he received. Conversely, as his brothers have grown we have made assumptions of their understanding and maybe even believed that they would develop this awareness through the narrative that exists in our family - the hows, whats and whys. I can admit when I am wrong and this time I was wrong.
For the past two years we have come face to face with the holes in the two middle boy's narrative about their brother. It started with our older middlest and the day he had the Terry Fox Run at school. He came home excited and eager to tell us how well the run had gone and then he showed us the badge he had created in remembrance for that day:
I left it alone hoping that armed with this new information our son would change the narrative at school and perceptions (if there were any) would be corrected. Wrong Again.
This year our younger middlest came home from the Terry Fox Run and guess what his badge said: