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The Question Revisited

Thank you for the birthday wishes. And truly, not to be morbid, but I wrote this post a few weeks ago and never got a chance to post it. It probably isn’t the best post to follow birthday musings, but since I didn’t have my computer to upload pictures from the Resolve party, I thought, why the hell not. Let’s talk about death.


I was forewarned–Tash told me the first time I posted that the talk of death had only begun and she was correct. Something about an empty gas tank and pulling into a gas station sparked the question: “Tell me some people who have died.”

And who am I going to choose? The ones that float to the top of my mind immediately or sift down to elderly ancestors that they equate with dinosaurs–probably real but too far removed to be certain. I paraded out a great-great-grandmother, a few great-grandparents. She asked if you could die if you stopped eating in the same way that a car will die if the tank ran out of gasoline. Yes, I admitted, you could die from not eating, but you’d have to stop eating for a long time.

And, of course, she freaked me out by deciding to skip dinner a few hours later.

It didn’t take too long for the wheels to turn and the Wolvog, who generally shies away from talk of death looked at me and said, “am I going to die one day?” It was as if my very being had been botoxed. We were done pumping gas, but still sitting in the dormant car at the station. I turned around to face him. “Yes, one day, a very very very very long time from now. It’s so far away that you probably can’t even imagine it.”

He didn’t seem phased at all. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “after I die, I’m going to come back one more time as a baby.”

My little Buddhist.

We went through what happens after you die and I told them that after we die, we don’t need our body anymore so we plant the body like a flower so it can return to the earth. And the things that make a person unique–our neshama–leaves and floats away. I didn’t tell them that I like to think that it hangs around on old recipe cards and in mannerisms we inherit. But I wasn’t answering the question well because it kept getting asked and I finally admitted that since no one knew for certain what happened after we died, we could each have our own belief. The Wolvog could believe in reincarnation and the ChickieNob could believe that we all go to a great party in the sky and I could believe that our body is simply gone and we exist only in memories and tangible objects left behind.

The question returned as I made dinner. If Grandma-P was dead, did that mean Grandma-S didn’t have a mommy anymore?

Yes, I told her, her mommy isn’t here anymore.

And one day she’ll learn, equally heartbreaking, that while there are children without their parents, it goes the other way around and there are mothers and fathers walking around with their children missing.

And that is the point when the tantrum began that lasted for an hour and a half that included a missed dinner, two nose-blowings, a bath refusal, a skipped movie, and a lot of screaming. At the time, I thought it was about the spaetzle I made for dinner (and can I just add for a moment that it was freakin’ handmade spaetzle that I asked her if she wanted and took an hour to pull together), but as I sat down to collect my thoughts for this post, I realized the timing. And the thought that kicked it off. And the fear of the lost mother. So I returned upstairs and reassure once again.

She was still awake, even though I fully expected her to be asleep since I had been out of her room for an hour and she had been silent the whole time. She smiled when I came in and asked how I knew that her brother had fallen asleep with the blanket over his face. I didn’t, I told her, that was just a lucky catch. I came up to see you.

I asked her if anything was bothering her and she went through some strange ones–the fact that I didn’t make a playdate for her today; the fact that they stopped selling spaetzle at the store, necessitating me dragging out the spaetzle maker. I probed a little more and she finally looked at me with the most heartbreaking face and said, “I want you to live forever. I want us both to live forever.”

It was like staring at myself.

It was like being sucked into a wormhole beneath her toddler bed and shot out in 1978, she looks so much like me and that blueness, that thought tossing around in her head for the last few hours. As much as people focus on the joy of seeing yourself outside your body, in finding your eyes or your hair on your child, there is an equal amount of discomfort on the other side when you observe your traits as others see them. And there was such a depth in her blueness, her lower lip pushing on the upper one, her consideration of what lies ahead that I wished I could have the power to control fate. I would have wasted my wish on an impossibility just to set that fact out there. I wished I could live forever not because I wanted to live forever, but I didn’t want her to ever experience me not living forever.

Again, my soul thankfully botoxed within an inch of its life, I reassured but didn’t promise and let her dream that the possibility of eternal life exists in the same way that my mother allowed me to dream for years in the reality of invisible cream. It isn’t cruel to allow a child their imagination–especially one that creates a kinder and gentler reality.

I held it together until she put her head down and I started to stroke her back. I had buried my mouth in her hair, kissing her head, and it felt like I was recording a moment. That I would remember the feeling of her hair on my mouth until I died–that it wouldn’t be just another moment that faded into oblivion. It isn’t just photographs and school art we keep. It’s moments where reality shifts, where we enter a new plane of understanding. A terrible plane of understanding, but one that we can’t avoid forever. As much as I wish we could.


1 loribeth { 06.03.09 at 6:41 am }

Way to go, Mel, you've got me bawling my eyes out in my cubicle here & it's not even 9 o'clock. ; ) This was beautiful.

2 Jill { 06.03.09 at 6:51 am }

::sniff:: Maybe I shouldn't have read this at work! Beautiful post

3 Mijk { 06.03.09 at 7:01 am }

I am going to delurk for this. We are talking death here a lot. My seven year old has lost his dog when he was 4 (he was there when we had to put him down) so we had talked death a lot too. But then last Queensday an idiot ran a car through the crowd killing 9 people while my kids were watching the parade.; They were just broken and it was such a mess. We weren't even looking as we aren't that much into prinsecces anymore.. I hate for them to have seen such violent death. It tooks so much innocense away…

BY the way I am a true lurker./ finshed my family escaping art..

4 N { 06.03.09 at 7:22 am }

Another bawler here. Thank you for this post. That could be me, too. When I was younger, I thought it was just me. I think it could be a lot of us.

5 Kristin { 06.03.09 at 7:22 am }

You did good Mel. I think the moment when kids really get what death means is one of the hardest around.

6 A Mom in Jacksonville, FL { 06.03.09 at 7:32 am }

Wiping tears… Lovely post!

A few months ago my 4 year old had crying fits at bedtime everynight for a week. She cried because she doesn't want to die, she doesn't want DH and I to die, etc. I fully agree with you—by talking to her about Heaven and afterlife we were able to finally ease her anxieties. By allowing her to imagine the beauty and wonder that await, she seemed to finally find peace.

She seemed most comforted by the idea that love is forever. (Ex. I still love you when I'm at work. I still love you when I'm out with my girlfriends. When Daddy and I go out on dates, we still love you. And someday, when I'm far away in Heaven I will STILL love you.) Sighs.

7 areyoukiddingme { 06.03.09 at 7:43 am }

I'm with Loribeth…

8 callmemama { 06.03.09 at 8:01 am }

Good thing no one else was in the office early this morning. This post brought me to tears…
Beautifully written.

9 Meghan { 06.03.09 at 8:06 am }


I'm hoping someday I can handle this as eloquently as you

10 Julie { 06.03.09 at 8:47 am }

I held it together until the feel of her hair on your mouth.

Then I got all weepy.

It's funny this post should come today because just this morning Charlie was talking about my dad at breakfast. We'd been discussing mammals, and how mammals have fur. "But people don't have fur," he pointed out, and I rocked his world by likening the hair on our heads and bodies to fur, even though "some people have a lot of hair, and some have very little."

"Like Grandfather," he said. Yes. "He died." Yes. "I miss him." Yes. "I wish he were still here." Yes. "…But I can still love him, and I'll always know he loved us."

Bawling. He was only repeating what I'd told him, the catechism I'd met his earlier questions with, but the comfort he seemed to find in believing there was some remedy for death — if not a cure, then a way to face it when it happens to someone we love — flattened me.

Thanks for posting this.

11 Beautiful Mess { 06.03.09 at 9:16 am }

I'm very glad my parents said "everyone dies". Although, I didn't deal with death until my mom died, I still knew it was going to happen. You did a beautiful thing for your daughter. Of course, we want to tell them something, anything to take the hurt and worry away, but that isn't always the right thing to do. It sucks, but it's true. Hold onto that moment forever, I'm sure she will do. It was so beautiful and precious. Thank you for sharing it.

12 Deathstar { 06.03.09 at 10:02 am }

We talked a lot about life and death in our Buddhist study groups. Generally, there's a lot of fear around death because it is such an unknown, it can't be quantified, so we just live on denying that it even exists. I've learned that life is eternal, but not necessarily in the form that we possess today. It's more like life is a crest of a wave on the ocean, death is returning to the ocean, always there, always present, waiting for the right conditions to rise again.

13 Tash { 06.03.09 at 10:08 am }

Oh, this was so lovely Mel. I'm not sure what I liked more — your writing, in the retelling; or, the fact that your children are now comfortable enough to talk to you about these things. That you don't shy away and shush, and quickly answer with eupehmisms and feel goods. This way, they're going to trust you — they're going to think they can talk to you about anything.

At least that's what I tell myself when *I* have these conversations.

Just a small point, and really, this is a matter of preference so there's no judgment here and you need to answer how your family needs to answer: instead of saying "you don't have a sister anymore," I say, "you have a sister, but she's dead." Which maybe is confusing, or maybe it's like "you have a sister, but she lives in Timbucktoo," or "you have a sister, but she didn't come from mommy and daddy like you," or whatever. I like validating the position (everyone has a mommy, even if mommy is dead), I guess. And oddly, she holds both narratives in her head with equal understanding and grace: She answers in the affirmative if they ask if she's an only child, and yet, she had a sister named Maddy who died.

Kids are amazing.

14 Carrie27 { 06.03.09 at 10:46 am }

Wow. Truly moving. Makes me want to go into my kids' rooms and snuggle with them just a little more.

15 Lavender Luz { 06.03.09 at 11:03 am }

I was especially touched by this:

"As much as people focus on the joy of seeing yourself outside your body, in finding your eyes or your hair on your child, there is an equal amount of discomfort on the other side when you observe your traits as others see them."

And the perfectly raw, intimate moment you shared with you kissing her hair.


16 S { 06.03.09 at 11:03 am }

The last few paragraphs of your post brought tears to my eyes, and I am not someone who cries easily.

Although I know your intent was to express something else, your paragraph summed up very well what I will mourn most if we are unable to conceive a child of our own. I want desperately to "see my traits in someone else" and to experience those shifts in reality "where we enter a new plane of understanding."

Anyhoo. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

17 Cassandra { 06.03.09 at 11:15 am }

It doesn't stop at age 4. The mother (age 80) of a close family friend (age 60) died last year, and I was standing at the funeral with DH's late adolescent sisters. One of them made the connection that the friend no longer had a mother, and that someday their mother would die too. Her sister immediately shushed her because it was too horrible to think about, but they both started bawling.

It doesn't stop in the teens either. I won't even get into the phone call I got from my father earlier this year when my grandfather died — the clock had turned back 60 years, and he was a little boy whose daddy had died.

18 angie { 06.03.09 at 11:53 am }

Thank you.That was beautiful, just simply breathtakingly beautiful. I am mentally taking notes preparing for the death conversation, even though, at age two, I talk about it with her often. "Mommy is sad because Lucy died." Or "You have a sister too. She died." Someday soon, she will ask what died is.

19 Alyssa { 06.03.09 at 11:59 am }

This post was beautiful and hits home for me in many ways. Unfortunately, my kids have seen too much death in their short lives. My brother (their uncle) and my youngest daughter both died within the last year and a half. So death is a common and fairly well understood topic in our house.

The funny thing is, just recently my sister-in-law's dog died, a dog the kids were fairly close to. Anyway, for whatever reason, I just cannot bring myself to tell them the dog has died. I know, I know. It's ridiculous. But it's just too much death for me. I can't have that converstation again, not even about a dog. So in a questionable (but not uncommon) parenting move, I've fed them the line about the dog going off to live on a farm where she'll have more space to run around.

Yep. They swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

20 Tara { 06.03.09 at 12:26 pm }

Oh Mel… you made me cry. I can imagine it being me and Ruby one day. So beautiful and sad and so… everything.

I think you are an awesome mommy.

21 Vintage Mommy { 06.03.09 at 12:27 pm }

Vintage Girl has experienced death twice in her short life. The first, her birthfather, the second, one of our cats.

The mourning for the cat has gone on longer than I expected. The other day I heard her say "the vet gave him some kind of potion and he won't be alive anymore"; kind of broke my heart.

there are so many painful yet necessary lessons to learn together.

Lovely post Mel.

22 KLTTX { 06.03.09 at 1:39 pm }

Beautiful post Mel. My oldest DS asks about death a lot since my mom died when he was a baby. Every time I mention her, he say "she died". I still am not sure that he really knows what that means but I am trying to make sure that he knows that she loved him and that we can still love and miss her even though she is dead.

23 Miriam { 06.03.09 at 1:44 pm }

just beautiful. well written, poetic even- and just beautiful. it's a subject i banish from my head as quickly as it entered, and i cannot imagine the day i have to explain it to one of my future children.

thanks for this. it's a comforting read on the subject, no matter how discomforting the subject itself is.

24 Tara { 06.03.09 at 2:11 pm }

Thank you for sharing such a special moment with your daughter. Beautiful post.

25 Sunny { 06.03.09 at 2:48 pm }

You've done it again! Captured those frightening but crucial moments of parenthood with such honesty, feeling, and eloquence… thank you!

26 caitsmom { 06.03.09 at 4:31 pm }

Lovely. Leafing through my own collected moments. Peace.

27 Vee { 06.03.09 at 5:00 pm }

Another one bawling my eyes out. It's just too close to the heart this one.

When you know death is so close you try and take in absolutely everything, even if it is the sound of your husband snoring beside you.

Lovely post Mel

28 Sara { 06.03.09 at 6:05 pm }

We are talking a lot of death around here, too, with a 5 1/2 year old. His art teacher left to give birth and came back without the baby, who died at birth. Thankfully, they told the kids the truth. Somehow, he is comforted by the idea that everything has to die to make space for new babies.

Meanwhile, Alyssa, one of my favorite TV moments of all time is on Friends, when they are talking about how death was explained to them as children. One says that her parents told her their dog went to live on a farm in CT. Ross says, "That's funny, we actually did have a dog that went to live on a farm in CT." Everyone stares at him, and he's like, "Not Sparky!"

29 Jendeis { 06.03.09 at 6:46 pm }

I love the way you love your kids. You're so awesome sweetie!

My mom promised my little sister (when she was around the ChickieNob's and the Wolvog's age) that she would never die. So far, that's worked so I'm sticking with that.

I've also added several people to that pledge and they're all following it too.

30 Fertilized { 06.03.09 at 9:33 pm }

blown away mel!

31 Heather { 06.04.09 at 2:06 am }

Beautiful and heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time.

My 3.5 year old has started asking questions about death. I feel it is the tip of a long, deep iceberg.

32 birdsandsquirrels { 06.04.09 at 8:38 am }

Oh Mel, this post is beautiful and heartbreaking. I often imagine the conversations I will have with my not yet in existence children, and the conversation about death is one that I am already dreading so much. I think you handled it so beautifully and with so much love.

33 nancy { 06.04.09 at 9:29 am }

A very moving post Mel…

Do you remember when I explained the fact of dying and what happens to the body after death with my then 4 yr old? I told her about me wanting cremation and scattering my ashes in the ocean. When hubby came home, she said "Daddy, guess what? When mommy dies, we're going to set her on fire and throw her ass in the ocean!".

34 niobe { 06.04.09 at 9:41 am }

Lovely post.

And it made me think that ever since that Bad Thing happened to me a couple of years ago, death — my own or anyone else's — doesn't seem nearly as frightening as it once did. After the first death, there is no other. Or something like that.

35 Photogrl { 06.04.09 at 9:50 am }

I'm crying at work, too…

I love how intuitive you are with your children, and honest. And the line about recongizing traits of you in them…It's such a love-hate moment. I love that I can see some of me, but I don't want her to hurt because of me.

Beautiful post.

36 Faereyluna { 06.04.09 at 11:03 am }

Ok crying so hard it is making it hard to type. This subject really hit me hard. I lost my Father when I was 4. So I understand the reality that you face when you are a toddler and realize that you could lose a parent.

I was not old enough for the talk before my father passed away so I was kind of slammed with reality.

Mel, you did a good job.


37 Mer { 06.04.09 at 8:03 pm }

Unbelievably moving post. It brought me to tears. Simply beautiful.

38 battynurse { 06.04.09 at 10:05 pm }

Wow. Beautiful post. It's so easy to forget (especially if your not around kids often like me)how perceptive little kids can be. It's amazing.

39 Mrs. Gamgee { 01.01.10 at 8:55 pm }

So powerful, Mel… thank you for this window into your family.

(now I need to go find some tissue)

40 The Steadfast Warrior { 01.03.10 at 7:03 pm }

These two posts remind me that I will one day go through this with my daughter. Thank you Mel for sharing your touching moments.

41 Mina { 01.11.10 at 8:25 am }

It fills my eyes with tears when thinking of how beautifully and gently you touched this very thorny subject with your children.
I wish I have children of my own some day and be as inspired and comforting as you.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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