Yesterday as Jody and I played with our plastic farm animals, he began to tell a story about the horse he was holding. It was, according to him, squashed by one of our cardboard blocks and "got dead." He told the story several times in a row, not seeming particularly emotional, narrating events in an even, matter-of-fact tone, using more or less the same words each time. He seemed to be processing the concept, maybe trying to find a way for the story to continue beyond getting dead, but each time he stopped with "got dead" before starting over. On his last iteration he added, "Just dead," as a kind of final word on the subject before moving on to something else.
Death comes up in the 3-5 class. Often the discussions are prompted by the discovery of dead worms or bugs. One year there was a dead bird in the parking lot and the kids were excited to talk about it. Last year death was not a major topic, but I've had years when it emerged as a significant theme amongst the children, and one year in particular when parents approached me as a concerned group because their children seemed "obsessed." I think particularly upsetting to these parents was that this group of boys was using death as a kind of punch line, cracking each other up with the word "dead," the way they might otherwise have done with their potty talk. (Working on the theory that the boys had the idea that talking about death was somehow "naughty" and were simply finding joy of stepping together out of bounds, we brought the subject out of the closet by making it a part of our circle time discussion for a few days. It seemed to help a lot.) Perhaps those kids were a bit obsessed with the idea of death, but it's certainly not the exclusive domain of preschoolers.
We're not a religious school, but rather a community comprised of families who express a variety of faiths and not-faiths, and therefore there is no universally agreed upon dogmatic framework for death that I can offer the kids. So while the topic is often much discussed amongst the children, the role of adults in the room is simply to listen and perhaps make observations of fact like, "I'll bet your mommy would be sad if you really died," or "It would hurt to be stabbed," when the death talk includes violence. When questions about what happens after death is broached, however, that is a job for parents.
Vincent, our chow, was my most constant companion for 13 years. Early one Christmas Eve morning he passed away.
During his last year his eyesight had grown dimmer (he had one prosthetic eye and glaucoma in the other), his hearing had dwindled, and his vet even suspected that he had become hard of smelling. Of course we knew it was coming – he was approaching 100 in human years – but it was sad nonetheless.
As we discussed Vincent’s last day, each member of my family confessed to having thought about the possibility of his death within the preceding 24 hours. Our then 7-year-old daughter Josephine said, “I’m sorry I thought this was going to happen,” and, “I’m sorry I was ever mean to him.”
Naturally, we assured her that her thoughts had nothing to with his death; that the long, gentle strokes she gave him as he panted through the pain, and the water she carried to him for his very last drink, comforted him and made those final few hours a little more bearable.
Intellectually I know that none of us had anything to do with his dying, but when I look inside myself I find an echo of Josephine’s sentiment in my own heart. What could I have done to give us one more day together? I could have chosen the more expensive dog food. I could have taken him for more walks. Maybe we should have tried the surgery that the doctor offered, with its exceedingly slim hope for success – at least that included hope. I shoved Vincent aside with my shin that last week when he stood in my way: I could have been more loving. Maybe that’s all he needed to go on for another day – a little more love from me.
We know that children tend to assume culpability for the bad things that happen in their lives. We’ve heard the stories of children feeling responsible for their parents’ divorce. When we’re angry they almost always wonder if they’re the cause. And even my Josephine, as a big first grader, thought that she was somehow responsible for Vincent’s death and felt regret for not having been perfect in her love for him.
It’s not just children, of course; it’s all of us. Death is one of the areas of life in which I don’t think we ever attain any kind of superior knowledge or wisdom over children. When it comes to death, we are always children. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who feel “sure” about death, but for most of us, whatever our dogma or professed beliefs, there remains an enormous, unanswerable question.
For better or worse, we chose to provide Josephine with an answer to this unanswerable question. When she was just a two-year-old her Uncle Chris was stricken with cancer -- non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We visited him in the hospital almost daily. She watched him get rapidly sicker and she knew it when he died. Up until that point it was not in me to discuss the eventuality of his death. I’m by nature hopeful, and until there was no longer hope, I hoped. On the day of his death, I told Josephine about heaven. Like generations of parents before me I painted a picture of a perfect existence where Chris could play his guitar, shoot baskets, and drink coffee all day long; a place where he was waiting for the rest of us in peace and joy.
My own belief is that there is peace and joy in death, but it doesn’t match the picture of heaven that I provided my daughter. It’s a lie I told her. I know that the concept of heaven gave me comfort as a young child and I grasped for it as a parent. She is now, at 13, old enough to think for herself, to doubt. She seems emotionally ready to explore the unanswerable question. And I think she has forgiven me for lying.
Death is the most universal aspect of life and, at the same time, it’s the most individual. It comes to us all and, at bottom, we must all deal with it alone. In talking to children about death, it seems to me, we must each find our own way. Some of us can rely on our own hearts, others will need to consult books and authorities, while others turn to their religion. Some of us tell lies.
We are all children in this. Perhaps the most important thing we can do in talking to our children about death is to listen. As Mister Rogers said, "(L)istening is the most powerful way to show love."
Love and hope. That’s all we have. If we speak and listen from that place, we’re doing the best we can.
Strangely enough, even as I write this, I don’t really feel like I lied to Josephine. I know I lied to her, but don’t feel it. The adult in me knows that Vincent's ashes are in a wooden box across the room from where I sit and that a part of him lives on in the relationships I have with the two dogs it took to fill the space he left. But I don't feel like I lied to Josephine because the child in me knows to a certainty that Vincent is not "just dead," but rather with Uncle Chris, eating meat and cheese, sniffing butts, and waiting for me in peace and joy.
(Portions of this post were previously posted 6/8/09)