Talking to my child about Mandela

A few months ago, our cat died. My daughter was almost two. For a couple of days she asked where Ingwe was. And then, she forgot. We have two other cats.

I made vague mention of Ingwe being ‘in heaven’, much to my husband’s horror. He thinks euphemisms (and heaven, if we’re being completely honest) are silly. He insisted on telling Milla that Ingwe was ‘dead’. Milla ignored both of us.

Photo by Matthew TenBruggencate on Unsplash

Mandela’s passing

It got me thinking though. Mandela won’t be with us much longer. That’s a certainty. Even if he survives this bout of ill health, the man is in his nineties and I’m hoping for a quick, peaceful passing for him. Soon. He deserves it.

As people, we need to let go and learn to live as a Madiba-free not-so-rainbow-anymore nation. Whatever that is. But, as parents, the issue is a dual one:

Two questions

  1. How will we explain to our children what Mandela meant to us, when they’re old enough to care?
  2. How will we explain death to them, when they’re old enough to understand it?

Who’s Mandela?

I was lucky enough to meet Mandela once. In 2002. To have him take my small hand in his huge one, shake it and make a witty comment. That’s where I’ll start, when I talk about him. I’ll tell Milla he was wise, brave, friendly and funny.

I’ll tell her how I sat on our domestic worker’s bed, in her little room, facing her black-and-white TV, and watched him walk into the sunshine – smiling – in 1990. Winnie was by his side and there was a bright future before him. Before all of us.

I’ll also tell her that Mandela was human. And that we haven’t lived up to all of the promise we had back in 1990 or even back in 2002, because we’re human.

When she’s a bit older again, I’ll tell her about apartheid. I’m hoping it’s as laughable by then as women not having the vote is now. Who knows?

The way I feel now, today, it’s also possible that I’ll try to explain political agendas, broken promises, lying and greed, as a backdrop to why Mandela’s dream has, so far, only half-happened for South Africa. But maybe I won’t.

What’s death?

As far as death goes, I’m definitely going to share my version, which has heaven and our lost ones watching over us, and the occasional prayer. And my husband will share his, which is very different. And we’ll try not to confuse her.

I’d love to give you the answers for this. But I don’t have them. All I know is that, when I was six years old and my dad died suddenly of a heart attack, my mom told me that he had died, he was in heaven and he was also always with me.

I kind of mixed Dad’s image in with G-d’s (he had a beard and lots of grey hair, so it was easy) and that was the entity I talked to, when I needed to. It helped a lot – until I got older and realised that talking to a man ‘in the sky’, even if he looks just like your dad, only helps so much. It stopped working for a while.

And then I saw a cartoon by the amazing Jerm, which shows Mandela as the smiling face of the perigee super-moon we had a few nights ago, and it all made sense again, briefly, for the first time in years. For me, anyway. And for you?

This article was originally written for Jozikids by Tiffany Markman in 2013.

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Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman is a copywriter, speaker, trainer and mom. She was South Africa’s Freelance Copywriter of the Year in 2020 and one of the world’s ‘Top 50 Female Content Marketers’ in 2021, but she's still working on securing an award for her Mommying. She likes her coffee strong and black, her paragraphing short and tight, and her apostrophes in all the right places. Visit her website.

5 Responses

  1. lovely post. Being more spiritual than religious we tell the children God is in their heart. So if their beloved Granny is now with God – then she is in their heart. They love this and often tell us they can feel her and know she is guiding them.

  2. Lovely post Tiffany. Really enjoyed reading it & your lovely insight.

    This last weekend we went to Body Worlds with our 2 kids (aged 9 & 11). But had to wait the whole day as tickets were sold out. So we ended up going to Museum Africa & had a long discussion with my kids about our South African past… not an easy discourse with kids at all! And of course seeing Body Worlds afterwards my son walked into the section with the couple by mistake – which opened up a discussion about sex. So there you have it… a visit to the museum & we end up talking about life, death, sex & certainly not the bugs & the bees.

    But I do tend to agree with you that little kids need "heaven" & "someone watching over them" to make sense of loss. I love the symbolism in the image above. Very poetic.

  3. Hello guys. I want to know what you think, on two counts: what will you tell your kids about Mandela and how do you explain death?

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