Being Honest with our Children

This week, our community lost one of its key children’s program leaders. Michael lived with a brain tumor for many years, managing the symptoms and functioning very well. Over the last couple of months, his reality changed and the tumor began to impact his movement and abilities.

After Michael was no longer able to be present with the community and teach the children, it was important for us to address his illness and his absence with the children with whom he worked so closely. During our regular conversation time during our gathering, we took some time to acknowledge the difficult reality of Michael not returning to teach. I spoke words similar to the following:

Today during our time on the carpet, we’re going to talk about someone very special. If you spent any time on this carpet, or in kidSPIRIT over the last 8 years or so, you know Michael. We have some pictures of Michael up here on the wall.

I want to tell you a little bit about Michael. He loves reading. He loves teaching. He loves science and understanding how things work. He loves old movies with a guy named Buster Keaton. He loves baseball, particularly the San Francisco Giants… we know this because he often wears his favourite Giants jacket to church on Sundays.

For as long as most of us have known Michael, he has had something strange happening in his brain. He’s had a tumor growing there. A tumor is a bunch of cells, just like the cells that make up our whole body – but these cells are growing in a place they shouldn’t grow…in a clump in his brain. For years and years, he was able to go to work, play games, come to church and lead kidSPIRIT and his brain did very well. But just in the last few months, that started to change and he couldn’t do those things anymore. Now that tumor is interfering with how the rest of his body works. He’s having trouble moving his arm and his leg and things like that. So now Michael is staying in a hospital where doctors and nurses and his family and friends can care for him.

This means that Michael won’t be able to come back to church and be our kidSPIRIT leader anymore. He’s sad about that. And we’re sad about that.

You might have questions about what I just said. It’s okay if you have questions or want to say something about this. You can ask me, or if you think of something later, you can ask your parents or your grandparents.

We went on to have a time of gratitude for Michael where we thanked him for his work and many years of volunteer commitment to kidSPIRIT. (You can read our tribute to Michael in a separate blog post) After, in their program time, the kids were invited to make cards and posters to share their love, care and appreciation for him.

As difficult as this time was with the children, it was important to do this. I think many times the realities of life and death are kept from our children. I know growing up, my parents certainly didn’t share with me when significant health events were happening in the lives of family members or friends. Even as an adult, there were times when my father was going through some cancer testing and didn’t tell any of us. Nobody wants to feel like they have to learn about news indirectly, or worse, learn about significant things much too late.

The thought of sharing difficult news with the children in our lives is more difficult in our imaginations than in the actual conversations. Children are so open…and when they have a trusted adult telling them serious or difficult news, whether its about someone they know or world events, many are very able to hear this in good ways. Our openness with children needs to be accompanied by the reassurance that they may not have a response right away; they may respond in different ways in an hour, a day, a week. And when that happens, we will be there for them to answer questions, to comfort them, and to continue the conversation.

I can’t imagine a community where we would not talk about someone so close to the children’s weekly experience. They know Michael’s not in the classroom anymore. They have questions about where he went. Imagine from their perspective if the adults in their lives knew he was dealing with his health and didn’t tell them. Perhaps they would discover this truth too late and be left out of any expressions of care and community in which they might participate?

I confess I was surprised when many in the community shared with me that they were amazed that we addressed this so directly with the children. I heard that they have never experienced a community that would be honest and open with the kids. This would be the real tragedy: if we didn’t honour our children enough to recognize the reality of sickness and death, in ways they can understand while reassuring them that they are safe, they are loved, and that they can have an impact in showing kindness and compassion. These are the skills of life at any age. I hope we can work to make this the norm for our families and communities.

I’m encouraged and honoured by the children’s reactions to our conversation, by their care and sensitivity, and by their love and respect for their kidSPIRIT teacher and hero, Michael.