For the life of me, I can’t remember when I first contemplated death. When my grandfather died when I was in third grade, I remember crying and feeling sad for weeks. By then, I understood something of the permanence of death. I was eight, and I was a fairly morbid and sensitive kid, who, in her spare time prayed for the stigmata just like St. Teresa of Avila.
My daughter, at half that age, has started asking questions about death and from her questions, it seems like she sees it everywhere.
It started when our nanny Sandra came to work one morning with a blotchy face and a runny nose. In front of my daughter, I asked her if she was OK. Her face crumpled in grief and she explained that her beloved uncle had died and that she wouldn’t be able to make it home for the funeral. I comforted her and asked her a few questions after offering to give her the day off to mourn her loss. Before my conversation with her was over, I felt my daughter tugging at my shirt. “What are you talking about, Mommy? Where is the uncle now?”
I took a deep breath and stared at Sandra. We both realized that we had to offer an explanation because my daughter had heard too much. Sandra offered, “My uncle had a bad boo boo, and I won’t be able to see him for a while.” Unfortunately, my daughter wasn’t accepting that because she’s got a finely tuned BS detector. She looked at me as if to say, “Come on. What’s really going on here?”
Naturally, I stalled, stammered and evaded. I sing a few bars of that song from The Lion King about the circle of life, but all that came out was a something closer to Goodbye, Norma Jean.
That whole conversation sparked something in my daughter. Now, when we listen to her favorite CD and the song Found A Peanut comes on, she asks me why the singer died from eating a rotten peanut. Then she asks me where bugs go when she smashes them with her foot. She wants to know if she will die someday too.
I’ve had to ban NPR in her presence because the last thing she needs to hear is about death tolls from forest fires, Syrian rebels or gun violence right in our own city. I’ve curtailed any flip sayings like “I’d rather die than pick up the mess in this house,” or “I’d kill for a Dove bar right now.” It’s not appropriate now, and it probably never was.
People have recommended age-appropriate books about death to read with my kids. I am only mildly consoled that lots of kids start asking these questions at her age. But I still hate it. I hate that I have to look into her eyes and tell her that death is a long goodbye. I prefer to deny both the fact that she’s asking about it and the fact that the answers she seeks are pretty grim.
It’s in these moments when parenting wrenches my heart the most. She deserves clear answers from me, and it’s my job to give them to her no matter how hard it is for me to talk about it. Parenting means talking with my kids about all parts of life, not just the simple joyful ones that are easy to talk about. Parenting also means keeping it simple, direct, and honest. Even when it comes to death.