Like in the case of the passing of a grandparent or a close family member, or even a pet. To top it off, almost everyone today knows someone whose relative or friend might have succumbed to the virus, so it’s only inevitable that questions from children concerning ‘what’s happening’ fly fast.
The hard conversation concerns death and it’s one of the most uncomfortable subjects to be broached in Indian households, barring maybe sex education. But it’s also something many parents are compelled to confront, in the presence of children, thanks to the never-ending coverage of the pandemic and its fallout on our lives. The conversation becomes necessary when it comes to explaining the rationale behind wearing masks, as India surges ahead with 4.8 mn COVID-19 cases, with no sign of ebbing. It’s also about explaining what’s the worst that could happen if one doesn’t follow basic social distancing norms, you end up dead.
It’s interesting to note how children are acquainted with the idea of death from their earliest memories. For many parents, easing kids through their first brush with death happens during activities like watching cartoons. Take, for instance, the evergreen Disney films Bambi and The Lion King. The idea of mortality is sprung upon unsuspecting toddlers early on when both Bambi’s mother and Simba’s father Mufasa are killed by Man and a scheming sibling, respectively. Guardians have spent thousands of man-hours quelling the ensuing waterworks, and in turn, paving the way for a child’s understanding of one of life’s big mysteries.
But that’s just the home-front. Once school kicks off, alongside adolescence, in a throwback to pre-pandemic days, comic books are exchanged, as are works of fiction - yes, Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys have respectfully stepped aside for Potterheads, Wimpy Kids, and Geronimo Stiltons. India’s own storytelling heritage - through mythological epics depicted in Amar Chitra Katha, gloriously and graphically detail the martyrdom of warriors like Abhimanyu. And Harry Potter would embark on a quest to find the man who killed his parents - Lord Voldemort. And just like that, through superheroes, both American and otherwise, with or without capes, the notion of death gets registered among youngsters everywhere. Comic-book culture-wise, the French have dealt with mortality in subtler ways - with creators Goscinny and Uderzo eschewing the premise completely in the Asterix series; and Herge merely alluding to it via conversations in Tintin.
However, loss of innocence comes early in this age of hyper-real media, where news bites of an increasingly worrying nature are transmitted at the speed of light. Reports concerning youngsters who ended up taking their own lives, either owing to academic or peer pressure or even because of a disagreement with family or friends over mobile games have become commonplace. In the time of the pandemic, social interactions have screeched to a halt, and kids are at a loss to understand why everything that came naturally to them has stopped - from school going to playground visits or even birthday parties and get-togethers.
Experts have said that depriving children of such essential human stimuli will have a long-term impact on their physical and mental wellness. It’s also why parents must find time to unplug from their workstations and smartphones and reconnect with youngsters, in a sensitive and empathetic fashion. Helping them imbibe a sense of wonder and respect about life and its possibilities is paramount at this hour, especially when the risk of death looms large on the populace.