Ok, so this isn’t really a guide. It’s more accurately described as the search for quietude in the unknown when you’re supposed to be the one with all the answers.
The truth is, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to say my son about death, not yet anyway. Naively I hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to broach that great big subject for a long while. I had yet to craft my thoughts into a lucid explanation. It was shortsighted on my part, I admit it. Let’s be real though; one of the big perks of being spiritually hippy-dippy is that when asked these types of questions, you get to shrug your shoulders and smile sweetly as you cite the comfortable mantra ‘I just don’t know, anything is possible.’
But as anyone with any experience around a preschooler knows, that sort of vague response wouldn’t begin to satisfy a kid’s insatiable curiosity. My plan of figuring it out along the way when he was old enough to somewhat understand the complexity of such an idea, quickly flew out the window. And while I didn’t expect the need for an explanation to come so early, it did.
Until very recently my four-year-old son’s understanding of death was limited to the absurdly large body count from the wonderful world of Disney. You know, that magical world made especially for children where everyone’s parents die tragically and villains are out for total and utter annihilation. Don’t get me wrong; despite his penchant for blood, we are still big fans of the ‘Mouse’ in this house. But I have never understood why the stakes must be so high in children’s movies. It’s completely baffling to me. It’s also only fair to note that nobody has offered to pay me to make kid’s entertainment either, so what do I know.
Then without warning, as it often does, death touched our family in a very real way.
It was just over a month ago that my wonderful stepfather suddenly died. He truly was the best of men. And his loss was especially shocking as he and my mother had finally packed up their entire lives and home of many years to move closer to the grandkids. We were so elated to have them right up the road after years and years of begging. My son completely adored his ever patient Papa, who was always game for a bug hunt or dropping a pole in the water. So imagine that what began as the promise of the #bestsummerever filled with fishing trips and backyard campouts quickly dissolved into trauma response. We helplessly watched the devastation of my beautiful mother who went from picking out curtains for their new house to picking out a coffin, and beginning the litigious business surrounding death all within the same week. It was heartbreaking and dumbfounding — life at its ugliest. But the sad reality is that life doesn’t stop moving even when you have front row seats to the deepest sorrow. Groceries still need to be shopped for, bills still need to be paid, and kids need to be reassured from the ones they trust the most.
Somewhere in the middle of the chaos that envelops these life events, my husband and I sat down for one of our ritual back porch chats where we always work things out.
We needed to settle on something of a unified perspective to share with our confused little boy who was frequently wondering when his Papa was coming back and why everyone was so sad. And time was of the essence. Unsurprisingly, my leaning was toward a more gentle explanation, akin to the comforting narrative I was taught as a child. While my husband, forever the rationalist, veered toward a more clinical response- citing a friend whose children will gleefully describe their future as ‘worm food!’. That was a little too literal for my taste, and thus we landed somewhere firmly in the middle.
1. It’s OK to share other beliefs.
Before the funeral we explained to our son what he would probably see from the people around him. There would be lots of tears, we said. And what a beautiful moment to respond to his amazement that ‘yes, grownups cry too sometimes.’ It also seemed like the right opportunity to describe the different belief structure of some of his family. We told him how interesting it is that people all over the world believe differently about all kinds of things, and death is just one of those things. Being a devout Christian, my mother put together an appropriately religious funeral for my stepfather that was incredibly beautiful and moving. And I’m happy my son was there to share that experience with his family even if we don’t all exactly share the same world view.
2. It’s OK to say ‘I don’t know.’
Much to my surprise, my son wasn’t at all puzzled by an explanation of death as the ultimate adventure! We described a picture where death was a wonderful mystery that everyone gets to solve on his or her own someday. His response was four-year-old perfection: ‘That sounds pretty cool and kinda scary.’
Yea buddy, that about covers it.
3. It’s OK for death to be informal.
Due, at least in part, to the way that it was described to him, my son has developed a pretty casual view of death. He frequently asks when his Dad or I are going to die. He wants to know when he will die. He wants to know when the worms on the sidewalk will die. And once, just once, he thought I should reconsider an extra ten minutes before bed because ‘he was going to die someday.’ How can you not laugh hearing that logic? There have been so many instances during this difficult summer where I have been completely astounded by the insightful reflections of his young mind. Who would argue that there is anything more persuasive to appreciate life’s simple moments, even in heartache, than watching a kid’s outright joy in the ordinary.
And for all my worry over what to say to this impressionable little kid of mine, it proved unnecessary. When I told him he wouldn’t see his Papa again in this world, here’s what he said to me:
Kids are remarkable little creatures, aren’t they?
In loving memory of Stephen McFarland, Papa.