Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Death: It’s not just for stink bugs anymore

Remember a while back, when I was wondering how to talk to my kids about death? Well, yesterday it happened.


It wasn’t the way I expected it to happen. I was making my lunch and trying to get the kids to eat their lunch. I had been cleaning out our old office all morning, trying to get it ready to become my son’s new big boy room. It was the kind of day I love and my kids hate, a completely unscheduled “get stuff done” day.

So they were cranky, which makes me cranky. I should have taken them outside or played a board game, but when I’m being productive, it’s hard to stop. My son had a major meltdown over lunch. He kept getting up to play instead of eating, so (after a warning or ten) I took his plate and put it up on the counter.

Cue the complete losing of his shit. Meltdown, tantrum, freak out. He didn’t hit or kick. He told me, screaming through tears, “I am so angry at everything right now! Grrrrrrrrraaaaaggghhhhh!” Yay for using words.

I managed to keep my cool and told him he could have his lunch back if he could calm down and ask me nicely. After a few minutes, he took some breaths, something we have been working on, and calmly said, “Mommy, please give me my lunch back, because when I say something, you have to do it.”

I gave him his lunch, but reminded him, “No, I don’t do what you say. You do what I say. But if you ask me for something nicely, most of the time I will do it.”

This sparked a discussion of what would happen when he grew up and he was the Daddy and I was the kid. For some reason, despite correction, my kids have persisted in their belief that someday the tables will finally be turned and they will be able to force me to eat one bite of gross things and come up with other seemingly arbitrary rules.

I explained, once more, that I would never be their kid. That I was a kid a long time ago, and Mimom was my mommy. And then my daughter asked… “Who is Mimom’s mommy?”

They don’t know. Because they never met her. She died when I was a kid.

Deep breath. “Honey, Mimom’s mommy is not alive anymore. She lived for a very long time until she was very old, and then she died.” Now this is not strictly true. She died far too young, but for the purposes of our death lesson, this feels like a safer thing to say at this stage.

It clicks. It’s not the first time we’ve talked about it, but it’s the first time we’ve talked about it in terms of a concrete person. My daughter’s lip starts to quiver. I see her get it.

“But I don’t want Mimom’s mommy to die.”

“I know, honey. It’s sad when someone dies. But when we get really, really old, we all die. Everyone does. But hopefully by the time someone is done living, they’ll be ready because they had a wonderful, long, life.”

“Mommy, I don’t ever want to die.”

“I know, honey. But you’re going to live for a long, long time. Long enough to grow up and have your own babies if you want to, and long enough for them to grow up. You’ll be very, very old when you die.”

And then, either because I am smart or because I am a complete idiot, I say, “Mommy and Daddy’s job is to keep you safe so that you won’t die until you’re old. That’s why we make rules to keep you safe, so you won’t get smushed by a car or fall down the steps. We keep you safe so that you can stay alive for a long, long time and not get big boo-boos.”

And bam, it clicks for my son. He gets it. “Mommy, I want you to take care of me forever so I will never ever die.”

“We all die someday, baby. But I will take care of you until you’re very big and then you will be big enough to keep yourself safe.” That seems to be enough for him. He feels safe and content for now and goes back to making words with the magnetic letters. (Not, it should be noted, back to eating lunch, which was what he was supposed to be doing. Oh well, getting his sister to ask me about death is pretty effective as diversionary tactics go.)

My daughter: “You’re old mommy. Are you going to die?”

“No, Mommy is a grown-up, but I am a young grown-up. I get to live a long, long time, until you are grown-up and have your own kids and maybe even until they are grown-up too.”

My daughter again: “But Mimom’s mommy died.” Her lip is quivering again. “Can we call Mimom?”

My heart breaks. My four-year-old daughter wants to comfort her grandmother over the loss of her Mommy. She can’t, because Mimom is at work, but she wants to. Melt.

Then she asks, “Who can we call? I want to talk to my family.” Confronted, really for the first time, by the idea of mortality, she needs to talk to her family. We call Daddy.

“Daddy, I don’t want to die.” She starts hugging the phone, really hugging it. “Daddy, come home, please.”

Melt and double melt. She gets it, and she is processing it, and she needs her Daddy. She settles for phone hugs from Daddy, real hugs from Mommy, and Daddy’s promise to come home a little bit early.

Something’s burning. It’s the grilled ham and cheese I was making for my lunch. Hmmm, I guess I can scrape off the burnt part.

And just like that we’re done. They’re drawing pictures on their magna-doodles and asking to watch Toy Story. The process moves into the background. They’re done talking about death.

Until next time…


  1. It moves me that mom was remembered by your daughter, even though she never knew her.