My husband’s grandmother passed away last night. He got the call from his mother after 10 and our night owl, ever alert, came into our room as everything was being explained over the phone. Of course she asked normal questions like why G.G. (what the great grandkids had called her) had died, not as in cause, but in “why”. This wasn’t the first time death had been explained to her, but, like the other times, while it is a deceptively simple concept, I’ve found explaining it to a child is no easy thing.
My answers to her, something like, “well, it was just her time.” Or “she’s gone to be with God in heaven” (requiring yet another subsequent explanation of what God and heaven are that I know make no sense to her), felt inadequate. Luckily, she’s three, and was quickly on to other things like asking me about her doll or grabbing her pillow and running back into my room so she could snuggle. No, she doesn’t normally spend the night in my room but at that point, if she would go to sleep, I didn’t care, but I did wish I could have explained it in a way that would have resonated. No such luck.
The strange thing was that death had come up quite frequently of late. We don’t normally sit around philosophizing about grim topics (“War on terror, your thoughts?”), but somehow it entered the conversation, probably somewhere in between a plea for ice cream and an observation about seeing Christmas lights. My daughter asked why leaves fall off trees. I said they fall off to make way for new leaves in the Spring. She asked why they had to fall off. I admit, I was at a loss for anything better than, “well, that’s just what happens.” I am so bad at this. If I had been more clever I could have turned it into some great analogy for the circle of life (a concept she’s aware of thanks to The Lion King), but no. Somehow this led to a talk about death and how everyone will have their time to leave the Earth. Why it had to happen? No good explanation. Just that it did. I’m sure it was really not a satisfying answer, but again, thanks to the short attention span, my discomfort was short-lived.
Oh, but the odd conversations on death-related topics were not yet done. The following afternoon, over pizza, my niece, my sister and I were discussing how I was her godmother. She then extrapolates on that. "So, if my mommy and daddy walked into a lab and it exploded [Big Hero 6 plot point for any of you that haven't seen that movie], then we would live with you and Olivia would be my sister?" Silence and expectant look. Well, yes, I told her, if your parents both died in a highly unlikely explosion while walking into a lab neither of them worked in, then, yes, you could live with me and your uncle and Olivia could more or less be like a sister. Pizza? Seriously, what is going on here?
G.G.’s death was not my first ham-fisted attempt at explaining death to my young child. No, that time came with the passing of our Pitbull, Josie about a year and a half ago. Being that she was almost two, trying to explain why Josie was no longer around was tricky. She didn’t really get the whole idea of heaven and she kept asking where Josie was. Each answer I attempted was met with “why?”, which led us down a rabbit hole that any parent is probably all too familiar with. After several days of not seeing Josie around, eventually my daughter understood that she was gone, though the particulars of the dog’s departure were (thankfully) no longer in question.
When she’s older and has more of a grasp of the world and what she does or does not believe, the whole explanation of death will become, albeit not easier, but a more enlightening conversation. Frankly, the only ones who truly know what happens when you die are those who have. I can only venture a guess based on what we believe to be true. Everyone has their own belief and I know when she becomes more educated about the world, that question about why or what happens just gets murkier. Depending on what you believe, the “ever after” is either nothing, another life, a journey to heaven (or less comfortable surroundings), and just about everything in between. Such a simple concept-ceasing to exist- inspires such complicated questions and even more bumbling explanations (at least from me). However, I am sure I will be longing for these types of awkward conversations when, say, even more awkward conversations arise as she gets older. “Birds and bees? You sure you don’t want to talk about death again?”