My son is a little over four. We’d been trying to avoid telling him about the concept of death as long as possible, calling funerals “sad parties” and not allowing him to watch “Frankenweenie.” Then, one day a few weeks ago, on a very long car ride, he told me he was looking for dodo birds in the woods we were driving through.
I told him that there were no dodos in the woods. Of course, he asked me where they were. “Um, nowhere…” And of course he questioned that, too. I told him that was a discussion that we should have when his father was around, as he might have something to add. He accepted this.
A few minutes later, he started giggling. I asked what was so funny, and he said, “Jenn, that building has a point on it!” It was a church. How had he never noticed a steeple before?! I told him what it was, and he asked why we don’t go to church. Ugh. Again, I told him we needed to wait for his father.
The next weekend, the three of us were on the way to Toys R Us to buy a bike when I told his father about his questions. He suggested we tell him about death now. Um, now? “Don’t you want to discuss it first, and make sure we know what we want to say?” He’s the one who’s always talking me out of telling him. “No, you start, and if I have anything to say, I’ll speak up.” Damn. I had no idea where to begin. It went something like this:
“Hey, buddy? Have you heard the words ‘die’ or ‘dead’ before? Do you know what ‘death’ is?”
“Okay, you know how when we pick a flower, it eventually wilts and dries out? And then it’s dead, and it’s not a flower anymore?”
“Well, all living things are like that. If you cut down a tree, it will die. And eventually, everything dies. Fish, squirrels, dogs, spiders, people… We all die.” Big pause, waiting for questions. Nothing. “People and animals usually don’t die until they’re old. You can die if you get really sick. Not like a cold; I mean a really bad sickness that doctors can’t fix. And you can also die if you get really badly hurt. Not like a bruise, but if you got in a very bad accident, you might die.” Another pause. Nothing. “Okay?”
“So when you die, you're gone. You're not there anymore. You know how sometimes we go to sad parties? Well, those are actually called funerals. Remember when we went to the one at John’s daddy’s house?” (John is a fake name for my friend)
“Well, we were there because John’s mommy died. She was kind of old, but not really. But she got very sick, and unfortunately the doctors couldn’t fix her. So she died. She’s not here anymore. And that’s sad. And John and his daddy and his brothers miss her. So that’s why we went to the party.”
“So, everyone will die someday. I will die. You will die. But probably not until we’re very old. Oma and Opa [his great-grandparents] are a lot older than us, and they’re still alive.” Another big pause. “Okay?”
“Do you have any questions?”
“Alright. Well, if you ever do, you can ask us. And please don’t discuss this with anyone else. I don’t want you telling your friends anything about death, or asking them any questions, do you understand?”
“Because death is something that children should discuss with their parents only. Alright?”
So that was that. We figured he was a little overwhelmed, and he’d have questions eventually. I’d ask him about once a week if he had any, and he always said no.
Then one day, he asked about Arthur.
Arthur is a crow that lives, or perhaps lived, in my neighborhood. I spotted him back in November. Arthur has (or had) a broken wing. The first time I saw him hopping around with that wonky left wing, I felt terrible. I wondered if I should call animal control and have them put him out of his misery. I didn’t call. Then, I saw him again a week later. He was hopping a lot faster, and was able to scramble up on top of small hills with ease. I was so impressed! He was really doing this!
All winter, we watched Arthur scurrying around. We’d look forward to finishing off a loaf of bread so we could toss the heels out in the yard for Arthur. After a while, he learned to trust me when I’d step out on the deck. I was the nice lady who fed him.
Sometime in February, I noticed I hadn’t seen him in a while. We’d had a couple of big snowstorms already, and more were coming. It took some time, but I finally accepted that Arthur was gone. Then, last week, the boy asked me where he was. A perfect opportunity to make sure he understood death!
I explained how birds aren’t really equipped to function without wings, and that it was hard for Arthur to get food, and get away from cars and predators. I told him Arthur was probably dead, and that was sad, but that his wing had most likely hurt, and now he wasn’t suffering anymore. Once again, I asked if he had any questions. He didn’t. I reiterated that if he ever had any questions about death, he could ask us. And if he felt sad, or scared, or any other feelings, he could talk to us.
He nodded and got very somber. He looked up at me and almost whispered, “Um, Jenn? I do have a question about death.” Is it wrong to say that I was kind of excited to hear it?
“Sure, buddy. I’ll answer it. What’s your question?”
“Okay… Is there, like, a button… that makes the Death Star shoot lasers?”
I still have no idea if he gets it.