There are certain subjects that I don’t really want to have to talk about with my kids. Like how babies are made (or born; good grief), drugs, mean kids, death.
But that’s not going to happen. These are important topics, so I have to talk about them, and so far I’ve felt that a matter-of-fact, honest approach is best.
On April 19, my husband’s grandpa died. He was 87 years old and had lived a long and prosperous life. He had been in declining health for the past several years, and when he suddenly took a turn for the worse, we all felt it was a blessing that he passed several days later, rather than having a prolonged end-of-life illness.
We went to visit him in the nursing home two days before he died so that we could all say goodbye. When Monkey saw her great grandpa he was asleep in his bed, with a variety of tubes covering his face. He didn’t look how he normally looked, so naturally she was a little put off. I explained to her that her great grandpa was getting ready to go live with God. She nodded solemnly like she understood, and even repeated it back to me on the car ride home.
When he actually passed, I explained to Monkey that her great grandpa had died, which meant that he had gone to live with God in heaven.
I didn’t really put much thought into whether we would bring the girls with us to part of the service. It was kind of a given that they would come with us for the earlier hours, and then my mom agreed to pick them up, take them home and put them to bed.
(Incidentally, on the day of the service, when we got to the church, Monkey goes running up the aisle — you know, the kind of obnoxious, feet-stomping running that echoed throughout the church and made the wooden roof struts rattle — sees the casket, and proclaims to everyone in the tri-county area, “Mom! Great grandpa is in that bed up there.” Sweet.)
In retrospect, I’m feeling like it wasn’t such a good idea to make her so aware of what was going on because the subject of death and dying is coming up more and more frequently, even at obscure moments.
In the last month, she’s repeatedly said to me, “I don’t want to die.” She’s also asked me, “I’m never going to die, right mama?”
One day she even stated, “Mom, God doesn’t want me to die.”
I agreed, and said, “No, you’re right. God doesn’t want you to die right now.”
To which she replied, “God says, (in a loud, low, authoritative voice) ‘Carys, I don’t want you to die.’”
It’s really starting to bother me. She’s obviously concerned about death, what it means to die, and is trying to sort it all out in her head. Not to mention that I feel completely unprepared to answer her questions about death and dying.
I don’t want her to feel worried about death. I want to tell her truthful things, yet I struggle with how much information to give her. What do I say??
I told her that her great grandpa died because he was very, very old and his body was tired and all worn out. I explained that every living thing eventually dies. Every time she asks me if she’s going to die, or if husband and I are going to die, I answer by giving her some variation of the “not until we’re very, very old and that’s not for a long, long, long, long time” answer.
But, that’s not even true for everyone. Her great grandpa dying was in the category of “the best case scenario for telling a young child about death” because he was very old and had lived a long and fruitful life. What happens when she finds out that kids can die too? What happens when she finds out that young moms and dads can die and leave their kids behind?
Tonight, after putting her to bed, she called me back into her room and out of the blue asked me, “Who’s going to take care of our house when we die?”
She meant “we” as in all of us — me, husband, sister and herself.
How could I tell her that most likely husband and I will die before her? What a terrifying thought for a three-year-old. So I didn’t say anything about that.
I snuggled up next to her in her bed and suggested that maybe when she was all grown up she could live in our house with her husband and her kids.
She liked this idea (especially because she wanted to be the mama and have Bean be her big girl) until she realized again, but who would take care of the house when we all died.
So then I told her that maybe we could give the house to another family with kids who would like to play on our swing set and run in our yard.
She thought this was okay, but then worried that the new family wouldn’t leave when she came back down.
As in, back down from heaven.
Oooh boy. I realized that she thought heaven was a place that we came back from; that she wasn’t grasping that death and heaven were permanent.
I gently mentioned that you don’t come back down from heaven, that after you die, you stay there.
Monkey started to cry a little and said, “But I want to.”
I didn’t know what else to say or do, so I just told her, “Okay, you can come back down.”
She seemed satisfied with this and then moved on to other questions about heaven.
Monkey: “How do we get up to heaven because you can’t go in an airplane.”
(Previously I told her that heaven was way up in the sky, mostly because that’s my own childhood recollection of “where” heaven is, and I guess when I think of heaven I still picture white billowy clouds up in the sky. Naturally, she thought she could take an airplane to get there, and I had told her that airplanes don’t fly to heaven.)
Me: “I think God carries you up.”
Monkey: “How can he carry me up through the clouds?”
Me: (OMG, how the hell do I answer these questions!? I have no idea!! What do I say?? Quick, say something!): “God has super powers.”
Yes. Yes I really just told me three-year-old that God has super powers.
(She paused to consider this)
Monkey: “B (her best friend) has super powers because she can run so fast.”
At this point I started laughing, really, really hard, mostly at the absurdity of the fact that I had just told her that God had super powers, and she doesn’t even know what a super hero is, and that she then equated her four-year-old best friend’s ability to run really fast as a super power. And then Monkey started laughing really, really hard because I was laughing, and we both lay in her bed laughing like how I laugh with my two best friends.
But after the laughter died down, she got serious again and said, “When I go to heaven, I want to take my Petey (her favorite stuffed dog), my lovey and my blanket with me.”
Instantly, I recalled the moment when I told my mom that I wanted to take my own blanket with me to heaven. We were riding in the car. I can even remember the intersection we were at (Hwy 83 and Hwy 167 by the electrical substation). When my mom said that I wouldn’t need my blanket in heaven I burst into tears. I probably was a couple of years older than Monkey. I think she was pretty surprised by my reaction. That security blanket meant the world to me (and I even still have it on my bed). She tried to explain that heaven was such a great place, that we didn’t need things like blankets and toys. This didn’t fly with me — I just didn’t understand that, and it didn’t make me feel better. It only made me insist to my mom even more that I MUST take my blanket with me. Ultimately, I think she told me that it was okay if I brought it.
Obviously, I wasn’t going to try my mom’s tack since it hadn’t worked on me, AT ALL, so I just told her that she could bring Petey and lovey and blanket to heaven.
And then she asked me again where heaven was.
I tried again with the explanation that it was up in the sky, but admitted that I wasn’t really sure myself, and suggested that maybe after church on Sunday we could ask the pastor.
I asked her again tonight if she was sad thinking about dying and she replied with a dismissive “No” in a “totally not at all” type of tone. I asked her if she was worried about dying and she replied the same way, which is consistent with the way that she’s answered before. But still. It must be somewhat concerning to her if she keeps bringing it up over and over again.
So, I’m struggling. I really need some non-scary, pre-school-friendly ways to talk about death and dying, the permanency of it, heaven, et al. I just don’t know how it can’t be scary. I’m concerned about when she finds out that not just old people die, but that kids and young people can die too. And, that it’s customary (please God) for parents to die before their kids (but not until we’re really, really old, like 95, and we have seen our grandchildren and great grandchildren, okay God?).
I also want to be really careful about how I explain this to her, because she’s obviously registering everything I say. Example: On Saturday I said, “We need to water this plant before it dies.” To which Monkey replied, “Yeah, because we don’t want it to go live with God.” (I thought this was so funny! But it underscores how I want to be careful about what I say.)
Has anyone else had to deal with this? What did you do? What did you say? Should we not have brought her along to the funeral service? I didn’t attend a funeral until I was 10 years old and it was my grandpa’s funeral. No other family members had died before then, so I don’t know it happened this way by chance, or if it was my parents’ conscious decision.
I wish I could just pretend like death didn’t exist; that babies are created by God and parents who have super powers; and that the world is just a happy place with butterflies and kittens and rainbows shooting out of everyone’s butt. But I can’t.
P.S. I also need to figure this out before my almost 19-year-old childhood cat dies. The cat still lives at my parents’ house and Monkey wants to see her every time we go there. I think the time is near, and then I’m going to have to answer another whole raft of questions about animals and heaven. And where are we on that? When I was a kid, I was told that animals don’t go to heaven, but now I think that’s changed, right?? Oy.