Blog: Oliver Emanuel (Accelerator 2019/20)

27 January 2020


Let’s Talk About Death by Oliver Emanuel

How do you talk to children about death?

It’s the only guaranteed universal human experience and yet death is the one topic of conversation we’d rather avoid. Ask a parent or caregiver what they’d rather discuss with a child and death would be very low on their list. Possibly lower even than that other taboo subject, sex.

I wasn’t a child when I lost my mum (I was in my early 20s) but very few people were comfortable discussing how it felt. Like a lot of people who’d never experienced a significant loss before, I was left to figure out how grief worked by myself.

As a playwright, I’ve always been interested in telling stories that open spaces for difficult conversations, especially when it comes to work for young audiences. That’s why I go to the theatre: to have space to dream about things I dream about.

My new play, I Am Tiger, is about a young girl who loses her older brother to suicide and what happens when her parents buy her a pet tiger. Suicide by teenagers in Scotland is at a record high and one of the ways we can address it is by looking at stories around what a death can mean to a family.

I recently attended a course by Cruse Bereavement Care which focused on how we talk to children about loss and death. The aim of the one-day training was to provide a deeper knowledge and understanding of the grieving process and theories of grief. We explored whirlpools, forests and Tonkin’s model of grief (someone else described it as a washing machine). 

Kids want to know the facts and they want to be able to ask questions. Pretending that the deceased is a ‘star in the sky’ might solve an immediate need to know but will later cause confusion. No amount of magical thinking will bring them back. Teaching kids about the permanence and the finality of death may seem daunting at first but if a child is going to be able to do the proper work of mourning, it has to start in a truthful place.

But why write a play about it?

There’s a quote by the novelist Neil Gaiman that I think about a lot when it comes to writing about difficult subjects for children. ‘If you’re protected from the dark things, you’ll be left with no protection when they show up’.

In other words, seeing a play about death is - in a sense - a preparation for what will inevitably come, a shining light for the darkest moment.