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The Question Has Been Asked

We have been circling the question since October. For months, she has been stepping right up to the edge and then stepping back the moment the conversation turns towards truth. She recently started trying out the word:

Dead

Die

Death

She wanted to play a game with me last week. “Eat my foot,” she told me. I pretended to eat it and she smiled triumphantly at me. “It was poisoned!” she announced. “You ate my poisoned foot!”

I pretended to choke and sputter my way across the kitchen, dying a Sarah Bernhardt-like death on the titled floor. I lay still with my eyes closed for a moment. The Wolvog jumped out of his chair and kissed my forehead with an intensity that would have broken your heart. “I brought you back with love’s true kiss.”

Because that is what happens in the fairy tales. With the exception of Bambi and a few parents, princesses die all the time and come back to life with enough love.

Last night, they were taking a bath and the ChickieNob was testing out the word. She was making an animal sponge float in the water. “It looks dead.”

“What does dead mean to you?” I asked because we really couldn’t avoid the topic any longer.

“It means you’re asleep,” she answered, almost as if she were also asking if that could be the correct answer.

“Does that mean you die every night?” I questioned.

She laughed and said, “no! You tell me what it means.”

“It means your body stops working,” I tell her, remembering the numerous times I have practiced Tash’s words for this moment. “It means you can’t see anymore or hear anymore and your body can’t move anymore.”

“Like if I ran in the street and a car hit me,” she said. Because that is what I always tell her; that there are times a doctor can’t fix you. Like if a car hit you and that is why it scares me when she runs towards the street. “Is that the way you die?”

“Or you could be very old. When you get very very old, you die.”

She asked if her great-grandmother was dead and I told her that she was alive; we could still see her and talk to her and she still moved about which means that she’s alive. And then she broke my heart and looked at me with this full innocence. “But one day, will she die?”

And I had to answer yes because I don’t make promises that I can’t keep.

She asked if I knew anyone who had died and I told her I knew many people–that is what happens when you grow up, you meet more and more people and sometimes you learn that one of them has died. In fact, I tell her in what I hope is the most matter-of-fact voice in the world, you were named after someone who died. That’s what we do in Judaism, we name people after someone who has died.

And then, as quickly as it began, the conversation ended and she went back to pretending to be a mermaid and asked if Marina Del Ray in the new Little Mermaid movie has her ears pierced.

She didn’t seem different afterward. I guess I expected that this black chasm would open and suck into it this modicum of her innocence. I thought she would cry or worry that she’d lose me (she already is extremely concerned that pirates will one day take me and I have to explain to her 1000 times a day that pirates would never want me. I’m a nobody, uninteresting. They want mermaids–not frumpy women in sweatshirts with frayed wrists).

But she just flitted around the bathtub after checking in with me that the main ways to die are to get hit by a car, get really old, or eat a poisoned apple. And I agreed; those seem to be the main ways I can think of off the top of my head as ways people die.

Because the truth of it frightens me even if it doesn’t frighten her. And I’m so thankful for that. I am just so thankful for that small good thing right now and my heart breaks for the thirty-four-year old ChickieNob who will know too much.

32 comments

1 Mrs. Spit { 03.19.09 at 9:43 am }

I was struck by the knowing too much thought. It seems to me that knowing too much is a double edged sword. We hurt when somoene dies, because we loved them, and they are no more. That’s death’s sting, that someone we cared for is gone.

And it seems to me, I’d rather no death, unless not having death hurt me means I loved no one. Knowing the pain of death perhaps also means we have known the joy of loving deeply.

2 Bluebird { 03.19.09 at 9:57 am }

I love the way you explained death. Our bodies stop working. It just makes so much sense, and doesn’t confuse a child with beating around the bush talk of “falling asleep and never waking up” and the like. Children are so resilent – sounds like they have very little comprehension that the conversation was so monumental for you! But it sounds like you handled it well.

3 loribeth { 03.19.09 at 10:07 am }

I think you handled the question magnificently. You answered her question honestly & didn't give her too much information she didn't ask for. I'm sure she's digesting it in her own way & will have other questions later. (I LOVE the image of a pirate swooping in to scoop you up — too funny!!)

It's so hard to see them losing their innocence, piece by piece, though. My two nephews were 6 & 10 when Katie was stillborn. I can still picture them sitting in the church at her funeral. The six-year-old's feet didn't even touch the ground & he was swinging them back & forth — that image has stayed with me. I heard him asking his dad, "The baby's in there?" (the urn) I think they thought we had stuffed her body inside, lol. I kept thinking, what an awful way for them to learn about death & funerals — why did the first funeral they ever attended have to be for their baby cousin? :(

4 nonlineargirl { 03.19.09 at 10:08 am }

The topic of death has come up a lot here recently. Ada (3.5) doesn’t totally understand it, knowing it is different from sleep but still believing it could be cured.

She has gotten into asking people when they will die, which is a bit disconcerting when it comes out of nowhere. I’m working on moving past “not for a long long time” because “a long time” could be an hour for her. I don’t want her thinking death is what happens after lunch.

5 Jess { 03.19.09 at 10:18 am }

It sounds like you handled it well, really.

I’m a TINGE fascinated by it…the discussion of it…because out here….it’s like you get used to death so gradually….as a child maybe your cat gets hit, or the dog dies, or your fireflies die, or something like that. By the time most of us are old enough to understand that PEOPLE we LOVE die (obviously sometimes an older relative dies before kids really get it, but then they at that age don’t get anything really) they already have a good idea that people die and go to Heaven and someday you see them again and no more pain and blah blah blah.

I think, out here in the sticks, death is less mysterious, maybe, is my point.

It must be harder, to not have those little deaths all around, to help explain it to children. But I liked the way you explained the body not working.

6 Lori { 03.19.09 at 10:34 am }

Years ago, I read in Readers Digest (when I was WAY too young to be reading Readers Digest) a story about a mom whose child, age 4 or 5) was dying.

It had a tremendous impact on me.

She was trying to answer her child’s questions. His concrete, not abstract, questions about death.

She said something like this, which soothed me:

“You may not remember, but back before you were born, you were in this comfy, warm, safe place. You had it figured out and had no reason to leave. But it was time to leave. It was time to be born and see what came next.

“And what came next was wonderful! You got to breathe and eat and love and walk and run and learn and hug and read and do all these fabulous things with your body.

“Now you are again in a place where you see no reason to leave. You have it figured out here, how to live in a body.

“But, as much as we don’t want this time to end, you are coming to the next thing.

“And just like being born, your next thing will also be natural and wonderful for you, in a new way.

“And our love for each other will never end.”

Kinda heartbreaking. But also, for me, somehow reassuring.

Really, death is as much a mystery as conception and birth. we who have experienced IF are probably even more in tune with that mystery. If we can make it natural for ourselves, maybe we can make death not as scary for our kids.

7 luna { 03.19.09 at 10:45 am }

that tash is so wise. you really did handle it beautifully. and the knowing too much is that part of losing your innocence. maybe we can view it as movement towards wisdom.

and lori, wow, that is some story. cant even imagine explaining death to a dying child who can comprehend the magnitude of the passing, at least from his/her own perspective.

8 KLTTX { 03.19.09 at 10:54 am }

The subject of death comes up with my 5 yo ds more often than it probably should since my mom died when he was a few months old. I want him to know about her and know how much she loved him but occassionally he gets freaked out and starts crying because he is afraid that I am going to die too. Its a tightrope that I try to walk with him and sometimes I fall off but most often we talk about her with love and smile and laugh at all of the memories.

9 Deathstar { 03.19.09 at 10:58 am }

Lori:

That was an amazing story. Wow.

My friend’s child asked me once where my dog was? I had no idea how to explain it so I just said he was everywhere, and I pointed to the sky. I was mortified when she started to look around really trying to see him. Okay, lesson learned, children are literal. Be careful with the metaphors. So I liked it when you said the body doesn’t work any more, that sometimes doctors can’t fix things, etc. I never really liked gone to heaven thing, it seemed to be …. insufficient.

10 Kristin { 03.19.09 at 11:02 am }

That is definitely a hard talk to have with your kids. I think you handled it brilliantly.

11 Brenna { 03.19.09 at 11:25 am }

Absolutely great explanation of things–and Lori, that story is lovely.

12 elizabeth { 03.19.09 at 12:51 pm }

poignant. hugs

13 Queenie. . . { 03.19.09 at 1:36 pm }

I just realized that you are several years younger than I am. How is that possible, when you are SO much wiser???

14 Tash { 03.19.09 at 1:45 pm }

You did simply lovely, Mel. Hugs and smooches and applause. And here’s the thing: leave the door open. You don’t need to bring it up. But now they know they can, and that you’re not going to “shush!” them or blow it off or use euphemisms and hand them a cookie. And they will ask what they need to and move on.

Kids are resilient buggers, and I’m convinced they don’t “know more than they should.” What they know is that their mom is someone they can talk to about anything, even the scary creepy weird stuff. Because there’s more of that to come. You’re not just talking about death, but teaching them about trust and respect and their intellectual capacity, and conversations like this (i’m hoping beyond hope because I”ve had wayyyyy too many) pay back in other ways.

15 Io { 03.19.09 at 2:02 pm }

You did a nice job of explaining it. It’s sad that you can’t protect them forever, I know, but you do a nice job of easing them in.
And if I were a pirate, I would *totally* kidnap you and make you the ship’s storyteller. But your kids could come along.

16 A Mom in Jacksonville, FL { 03.19.09 at 2:34 pm }

I was moved by this post!

I am totally waiting for “the question,” as my 4 year old has also been skirting around it for a few months now. Thanks SO much…I loved your description of the “body stops working.” I feel less stressed now that I have an answer for when she finally asks. :)

17 Amanda { 03.19.09 at 2:57 pm }

Oh please oh please let me remember your explanation when my time comes to explain death to my boys. That was such a perfect way to put it to a child (IMO)!

So glad her innocence wasn’t sucked into the chasm. I can understand the fear.

18 Clio { 03.19.09 at 3:05 pm }

this was so, so lovely.
thank you for sharing.
it touched my heart.

19 Jen { 03.19.09 at 3:51 pm }

It sounds like it went perfectly. She is obviously a smart little girl and very emotionally mature.

20 Erin { 03.19.09 at 4:18 pm }

You’re handling it perfectly, and knowing that the next question is coming will help you be prepared. P, who is 5, recently told me that he doesn’t want me to die, and I told him that hopefully it won’t be until I’m very, very, very old. He still wasn’t happy about that, and it hurt me to know that I couldn’t tell him what he wanted to hear–that I would always be there with him and never die.

You’re handling those questions perfectly. That doesn’t make them any easier, but at least you know that you’re being honest as much as her age will allow.

21 calliope { 03.19.09 at 5:42 pm }

oh wow. this post really touched me.

22 Barb { 03.19.09 at 7:40 pm }

Oh my gosh what a beautiful post and what a wonderful mommy you are. I am sending you the biggest virtual hug.

I remember being similar early in my life. It was enough to know what it was, but I didn’t comprehend the tragedy. It was only after my Grandma got sick, (when I was about 5) and I somehow sensed what was going to happen and when I saw her die that things got bad in that way. I really wish I learned about it more like the chickienob did. Good job Mommy.

23 Beautiful Mess { 03.20.09 at 1:08 am }

I had the same conversation about my mom with my son a little after he died. His questions threw me for a loop and my answers totally justified and satisfied his thinking. It’s a rough one.
Sending you an extra long, tight hug.

24 Villagepig { 03.20.09 at 4:37 am }

This is the first full post I have read (cheating a little because I want to read all the latest posts for everyone on the list), and can I just say that you have just beautifully illustrated how to deal with difficult questions.

Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you for providing such inspiration straight off ;-)

(Aren’t you glad your latest post wasn’t one of the inbetween ones we write about slightly less inspriational things because this way you will always occupy the higher stature ;-))

Yours,
VP

25 nancy { 03.21.09 at 3:35 pm }

I’m going to comment on this one as one of my comments for ICLW for my parenting blog today.

I am glad that when it was in front of you, you went through with the explanation you wanted to, even though you were afraid of the black chasm sucking up her innocence. What I’m glad about is the fact you’ve found the conversation stopped as quickly as it started and you may not be afraid of tackling another big thing in the future.

Why do I say all of this? I’ve watched 2 families very close to me. One was a mother who tried to protect her children from anything scary or “too big” for her (like death, not “too old” like sex). The other was a mother who tackled things as they came in. She wasn’t afraid of letting her children have disappointment but of course didn’t want them to feel pain. What she did was let them feel things as they came to happen.

These children of the second mother are 8 and 11 now and are two of the most wonderful and kind children I have ever met. I find that they are more tender when it comes to hurting someone else’s feelings because they were allowed to get their feelings hurt or disappointed throughout their lives. And this is the type of children I want to have. And I think the world would be better with more children like this, so I’m glad you are one of those mothers too.

(I understand I may be doing a terrible job at explaining this. It’s a hard concept for me to put into the right words.)

Let me give an everyday example. My mother in law was going to have a tiny bowl of ice cream right before she started to cook dinner. She said she’ll go into the other room to eat it so my girls wouldn’t want it. Instead, I said “no, go ahead” and let the girls see it. I didn’t shove it in their face, but when they did see it, they of course asked me for some and I said “no” and explained it was going to be dinner and grandma is an adult and adults can simply have different rules than children. My kids were okay with that explanation. And I’m happy that they can accept that. I find it much better than hiding something as simple as ice cream disappointment from them. I think it helps them become better humans.

26 Bea { 03.21.09 at 8:16 pm }

Well handled.

Bea

27 Michelle { 01.01.10 at 1:13 pm }

The innocence of children is so refreshing sometimes. She took your explanation, accepted it for what it was and moved on. If only we only we all could have that innocence back.

28 Em { 01.01.10 at 2:42 pm }

This post resonated with me as my first experience with death was my cousin dying suddenly at 5 and I was 5 also. My mother gave me beautiful explanations but of course because she had already died it was more traumatic… I remember being terrified that she was just a skeleton and I was too…
what you did was build a beautiful building block for the inevitable tragedy that follows it. Its hard and its sad that our lives are touched by tragedy but it is part of our tapestry of existence and you have gently opened a doorway into another world for her, that when the time comes you can peek this open again.. softly.

29 tbonegrl { 01.01.10 at 7:17 pm }

This made me teary. What a wonderful way of explaining it. The innocence of children is blindingly beautiful sometimes, isn’t it?

30 Mrs. Gamgee { 01.01.10 at 8:35 pm }

Oh to be that carefree… children are amazingly spongelike. They take in so much and seem to be unchanged by all that they see and hear… But then, they surprise you.

I am so impressed with how you handled such a delicate subject.

31 karlinda { 01.06.10 at 8:08 pm }

Wonderfully handled. I must remember this when we get to that stage. I think I’d be a little more careful with the wording though; “It means you can’t see anymore or hear anymore and your body can’t move anymore” would have scared me at that age. I think I would have taken it literally and thought that after you die you’re trapped in your own body!

32 Holly { 01.30.10 at 11:02 am }

I think you did a great job of handling answering the death question.

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