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Talking to Children While War Rages

Updated: Mar 16

With so much coverage of the war in Ukraine, it's well nigh impossible to keep children in the dark about what is happening, even 2000 miles away. But, what of the children who are literally in the dark, sheltering with family and neighbours in underground carparks, air-raid sirens and explosions their new soundscape, in the midst of the war zone? These children too have questions and I was moved to tears listening to how mothers in Ukraine are finding ways to answer them.

What would I tell my daughters in such circumstances? I wonder if, in the face of real danger, I would be capable of saying anything coherent. But, today, with 2000 miles between me and the tanks and gunfire, I've been drawn to reflect on what it might be that I would want to convey to my children.

I wear two professional hats that cause me to have so much curiosity about how we talk to our children in the face of extreme danger. As a Grief Recovery Specialist, I teach parents and teachers how to communicate with children about loss, and as an End of Life Planning facilitator, I support people to put their affairs in order both on the practical level of writing a will and creating a power of attorney, but also helping them to identify their wishes for their dying time. We know for certain that we are going to die so there is wisdom in thinking about what a good death might look like for us. Some consider dying at home with family surrounding them a good death, while others imagine dying fast and painlessly, a good death. But no-one I have come across, has ever identified dying in a war zone with their young children at their side, a good death. Tragic, horrific, brutal, unjust, atrocious, are adjectives more apt for this situation. And yet, some families are facing this possibility at this very moment.

Today, I asked my daughters aged 11, 10 and 8 what they would want me to tell them in such circumstances. They agreed unanimously that being told they were playing at hiding in the basement would be awful. Surrounded by fearful adults, overhearing fearful conversations, listening to fearful sounds and not being able to make any sense of how this is play was worse in their opinion than being told that there was real danger. They thought that although it would be utterly terrifying to hear that they might die, they would want to be answered truthfully if they asked, ‘will we die?’.

We talked about how just knowing that we will die is an important foundation for living well. Our bodies know how to die - human beings have been dying ever since human beings have been living. And, just as birth is an integral part of being human, so is death. We don’t need to wait until we’re on the edge of catastrophe to talk with our children about the reality of death. But, to reassure our children that death is a normal, natural and certain outcome of life, we have to make our own peace with death - and we do this best when our lives are at peace, not when they are disrupted by catastrophic violence.

One Ukrainian mother described how she had said to her children that there were bad soldiers in the streets but good soldiers protecting the people. The family had been able to escape the basement where they were hiding and were now in safety, but they had had to say goodbye to their father who had returned to fight with the good soldiers. My daughters appreciated the combination of truth and reassurance that this mother offered her children under the awful circumstances that they are in. We talked about what it might be like to not know if they were ever going to see their father again. Of course, this is the truth of our everyday reality too, and while it makes for madness to live as if each day is your last, it is wise to be gently mindful of the uncertainties of human existence, so when the unexpected does shatter our lives in the form of a fatal car accident or terminal diagnosis, both features of day-to-day civilian life, we do not experience it as an unrivalled injustice. However, in war, the odds shift and gentle mindfulness becomes acute awareness and with that the need for strategies to live with the psychological trauma of uncertainty.

Trauma leaves its mark on the future. We pondered together what it would be like if, having experienced the terror of war and been witness to just how bad the bad soldiers could be, the children met a Russian, in say twenty years time as an adult. They thought it would be hard to like Russians but they would understand that the person in front of them hadn’t been one of the bad soldiers, so they reasoned that would make it easier for them to accept them. We talked about our Russian friends and how the war is causing them to suffer too at the moment and bringing all sorts of uncertainties into their lives - the children recognised that being Russian doesn't make an individual culpable for the offences carried out in their name. However, if in our imagined scenario, they discovered that the Russian they had met, had in fact, been a soldier during the occupation of Ukraine, they thought they would feel hatred and loathing towards them. We discussed how hard it would be to even think of them as a normal human being. But, what if they overheard that same former Russian soldier describe how he was conscripted into the army, believing that his salary would enable his sick mother to get the medical care she needed, and then he had found himself on the frontline of a real war when he thought he was just on a training exercise and that he had been brutally treated by the officers, witnessed the shocking deaths of his comrades and directly threatened with violence if he did not obey orders. ‘That complicates things,’ my 11 year old concluded.

And that’s the truth of it. In the midst of danger, the language of good and bad serves to describe the lived reality so that we can speak about what is happening, but it is not The Truth. The Truth is that every single human being entered this world an innocent baby and somewhere along the line, something shifted. A traumatised parent caused the innocent to suffer, the suffering child became an adult capable of inflicting harm. And so the cycle of trauma continues. Knowing what we know about trauma, makes it imperative that we keep reaching for peace within our own hearts. Where there is peace, the language of good and bad is obsolete.

I can’t say for certain what I would say to my children in the plight of war. It is humbling to think about it and my heart is with all parents as they mediate their own fear and keep their children safe in terrifying and dangerous circumstances. What I can do from the comfort of safety, is look into my heart and see what is at war there and teach my children to do the same.

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