Taking the Edge Off Death for Our Kids

If anyone ever tells you that the blogosphere is void of real writers, then they obviously have never taken a gander at the beautiful, tightly-woven words of today’s very special guest blogger, Katia from I Am the Milk. I knew when I invited her to post here that whatever she came up with would be wonderful, but when I pre-read this piece about talking to young children about the concept of death, my breath was taken away. I am pretty sure you will love her as much as me. Be sure to follow her blog if you aren’t already. 

-Emily

You know how they say you should get a license to become a parent? Total BS, if you ask me. It’s not like any of us emerged from the womb talking to kids so they will listen and quoting Doctor Karp. And if some people are underqualified as parents, then wouldn’t that, by definition, imply that there are others out there who are overqualified? I have yet to meet an overqualified parent, with the possible exception of some mothers in law. Truth is we’ve all had to start this parenting gig from scratch. Sure, we might think that shadowing our parents for years prepared us, but gagging while watching them change a younger sibling’s diaper doesn’t really count. I’m talking hardcore here, like foregoing sleep as a thing, yet having to pretend that you’re completely sane when you show up at work every day. Like being expected to maintain said “sanity” despite the fact that you spend your days in some sort of a reversed Tom and Jerry scenario, constantly chasing around a little guy trying to save him from himself.

I have, however, at times, felt the devastating consequences of my lack of previous training as a parent. I’m sure you’ve experienced a moment of complete vegetation as a totally unexpected, out of the blue tantrum unfolded right in front of your eyes, starting with your four-year-old tossing his dripping toy penguin out of the bathtub after you’ve suggested they might want to use the magic word when communicating it’s your job to fix it. They then proceeded to throw a yellow ball pit ball at you in response, and before you had the time to recover from the shock and ask yourself “what IS a yellow ball pit ball doing in my bathtub?!” they pulled their tongue out at you while wrapping themselves in the inner shower curtain three times, tearing it in three different places while responding to any parenting book mantra you’ve feverishly rescued from the depths of your brain with a passionate “I’LL NEVER!”.

Or when death comes up. I’m sure you’ve vegetated to the sound of your child’s sweet voice inquiring about death or, worse yet, their own mortality.

“Mom, did Louisa doaaaay?” 4 Year Old asks me in a cut-to-the-chase kind of tone.

(I’LL NEVER, I’LL NEVER, I’LL NEVER screams a panicky voice inside my head.)

“No!” I protest, surprised to hear my own “I’m offended that you should even suggest that” tone of voice.

See, Louisa is our dog who died a year ago.

I was eight months pregnant at the time and didn’t want my then three-year-old who just had his first brush with death to associate hospitals with illness and death, since I was so close to my due date. Over the next few days it took him to realize that our dog was missing a transatlantic symposium with friends and family convened over the phone and the foundations of Doggy Land were laid. Neighbours, care givers, friends and family were all notified. There was going to be a zero tolerance policy towards any mistakes.

Doggy Land was running smoothly until BFF Chelsea’s cat Pepe died and went to heaven.

“Mom, did Louisa doaaaay?” he asks me again. Here’s my chance for redemption. I confirm.

***

It took a couple of months for that volcano to form and then it erupted one night at the cottage. On that night I remember so well, I spoke to God out loud for the first time ever, a dramatic gesture on my part, which was actually anticlimactic and understated in comparison to my son’s tearful address preceding it: God, PLEASE forgive us! PLEASE forgive us! Please don’t make me and my mommy and Daniel and my daddy doaaaay! Please! I don’t want to be dead, I don’t want to be by myself!”

That night and ever since I’ve been struggling with taking the edge off death for my kid. When I’d tell him that it only happens to very, very, very old people and describe the multiple milestones he still had to conquer before turning old, he would retort with “I’M NEVER having grand children, nuh-uh, not me. NEVER”. When I promised him I did speak to God every evening and asked for health for him and his brother he would want to get down to the nitty gritty, yes, but did I ask him that we don’t die? When I finally decided that loyalty to life’s truisms was overrated and that I’d rather protect his heart at this stage and reassured him that not only did I speak to God but I also told him that 4 Year Old should not die even as an old man, he would then ask for God’s response.

Our conversations on the topic ranged from heart-wrenching to completely absurd. Some of the most memorable “did we just go there” moments included catching myself explaining the concept of eternity of the soul with the aid of white corridors and trying to apply logic in response to my son’s questions on technicalities like whether his brain was going to travel with him or not and what about his head.

I am not entirely sure what death looks like inside my four-year-old’s mind, but I do know it’s intricately connected with the act of separating from me, a ritual enhanced by attending a new school. He may not fully grasp its meaning, but he understands that death is a loaded topic and treats it with trepidation. He has many concerns about it: Does God collect people? What happens then if I fall off his lap? How will you find me when I go there?

My brain is engaged in this, what feels like a super awkward game of Twister, as I stretch it in five different directions trying to find a comforting answer to reassure him that I will be able to find him in heaven, but applying logic to explain exactly how I intend to do so proves to be one of the most difficult tasks I was ever faced with. Impotence galore. At moments like these I feel like my impotence is up there on stage with huge projectors illuminating it.

Parenting is the hardest thing you’ve ever done not because of the sleep deprivation or the any of the other sacrifices it requires. Parenting is the hardest thing you’ve ever done because it forces you to become so many things you’re not, a self doubting confidence instiller, the voice of God and God’s representative on earth, a position I am DEFINITELY underqualified for.

I speak to God a lot these days and when s/he doesn’t answer I speak to Google. Google told me I should explain to Four Year Old that the dying body is like an old worn out shoe. I think I’ll be taking it back to God.

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24 comments

  1. […] Catch me guest posting today for one of my most favourite writers (she’s going to be famous some day) Emily at The […]

  2. So true. There is no easy way to explain death to a kid, in fact even us adults have a hard time coming to terms with it.

    1. Exactly, definitely one of those things we do not possess the tools for even as grown ups :-)

    2. Didn’t she just nail it with that last paragraph? There are so many things I have googled since I had a kid, but the ol’ Internet has come up with nothing to assist in explaining death. It’s a big topic.

      1. Isn’t it surprising? I remember feeling incredulous as I was reading this article suggesting to liken the body to a piece of garment. OK. Pass.

  3. You are right Katia, death is a difficult thing to talk about with children. One thing I found was that how they reacted varied enormously from one time to another. I found Judith Kerr’s book, “Goodbye Mog” was very helpful for processing death of a pet, and “Granpa” by John Burningham is a beautiful book (and video) about a grandfather’s death. It had me totally weeping, but my children just enjoyed the story.

    1. Thank you, Yvonne, I always learn so much from you! I’ll look into these books, even though admittedly it buying a book like that and facing death head on makes it so much more concrete and terrifying, but should totally be done if your child has hit that stage.

    2. I will have to tuck those titles in the back of my brain for the future!

  4. I’ve struggled with this as well. However, we were very lucky to have experienced my husband’s grandmother’s death in a very special way. After determining all that could be done for her was keep her comfortable at the hospital, my in-laws decided to bring her to their home so she could die surrounded by family. All of my husbands aunts and uncles and cousins came into town, and we were all just “there” with her. My husband’s uncle is a doctor, and he was so wonderful the way he explained the dying process to my kids…and then the spiritual side. It was all peaceful, and while we were all sad, the overwhelming feeling was that of celebration of life. I think it helped make death not so scary for them. On the flip side, later that year, a boy from my daughter’s class suddenly died. THAT is much harder to deal with. We tell our kids that they will die when they are old and after a long, happy life…like great-grandma. But then someone their age dies, and it is a lot harder to assuage that fear.

    1. That’s a beautiful story about great grandma and yes, I’m acutely aware every time I talk about it happening to VERY old people that that illusion will not last very long. SO hard explaining something like that.

  5. findingninee · · Reply

    Katia,
    As always, your words are amazing. “How will you find me?” made me cry. I haven’t had to have this conversation with my son yet. I dread the day that it happens but will remember this post when I do. I think you’ve handled it really, really perfectly. Also, going to click around Emily’s blog as it’s my first time here. Thanks for the introduction, friend.

    1. Thank you so much, my friend. I still feel like I fumble through these moments and am totally incompetent in dealing with them, but I think it helps to know it’s the same way for all of us!

  6. I loved how simple and honest and humble this post was.
    I haven’t gotten the death question (yet) in therapy with kids, but I like to ask the kid what he/she knows and thinks about the topic first, and hopefully their answer will both buy me time and give me some ideas on how I can clear up misconceptions and quell fears.

    1. I know how you feel. Since C is just now realizing that she’s alive, we haven’t really had to deal with the death issue yet. But when we do, I think that I’ll largely be winging it at first.

    2. Thank you so much and I think that it is so wise that try to get a feel for what they know first. Navigating this topic is a bit like a minefield.

  7. Gosh, this is so hard. My grandma had passed when he was 2 1/2. She was a mother to me. I didn’t know how to explain it to him so I decided not to at the time. When he inquired I said that she was with the angels. Now that he is older, I am able to explain it better. However, every old person that he encounters (my mom and dad) he asks when they’re going to die.
    Sigh…

  8. I did the same thing with my mom’s dog this summer. My son bought it for a hot minute and then became obsessed with death for the next month. What a great guest post.

  9. Thank you so much, Jean! I would love to hear about this from you some day. As in read. Or hear . Or both :-)

  10. “Parenting is the hardest thing you’ve ever done because it forces you to become so many things you’re not, a self doubting confidence instiller, the voice of God and God’s representative on earth, a position I am DEFINITELY underqualified for.”

    Yep. Sums it up.

    1. Doesn’t it, though? Scary thought.

  11. dishofdailylife · · Reply

    Death is a tough thing to talk about with kids. I know my youngest worries. After the shootings at Newtown, he told me he didn’t like having the extra police at his school, because he felt like it was going to happen there too.
    With animals, even when they were very young, we wanted them to know and understand. We all went to the vet together when we had to put our old dog to sleep…he could no longer get up and move on his own…and it was horribly sad. We all sat there in the vets office and cried our eyes out and petted him as he took his last breath. When our cat’s time came, he went surrounded by all of us at home…I saw him trying to hide and I instinctively knew, because he was very sick. It gave all of us (and hopefully our furry family members as well) a lot of comfort that their last moments were spent with us at their side.

  12. Katia, this is a gorgeous post. I love that you decided that “life’s truisms are overrated” and that you are going to protect his innocence…well, at least, as much as you can for as long as you can. I don’t envy you this position. We all must go there at some point with our kids. I must say I’m glad I’m not there yet!

    1. Thank you so much, Rachel! Yes, it’s definitely not an enviable position and I hope you don’t have to address these questions. I don’t remember ever going through a phase like that as a child, but who knows, perhaps it’s better that they do…

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