Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Questions about dying

"But I don't want you and Daddy to die."

This, from a sobbing sobbing four-year-old...a child who screams a lot but rarely sheds a real tear.

He was clinging to me, still damp from his shower, his yellow towel wrapped around him, his hair still dripping.


We have no idea where this came from.

We have had (knock on wood, thank God, insert any and all superstitious sayings here) no deaths or illnesses in the family. We have not watched anything new on TV. Nothing. We'd had, in fact, had a lovely afternoon, the four of us, at the outlet mall, shopping for, specifically, "super-hero PJs." We'd ended our shopping with a ride on the merry-go-round, and had come home for pizza and chocolate ice cream. I'd been cutting up tomatoes and listening to the Beach Boys when I heard some whimpering and something about "getting old" and "dying" coming from the bathroom, where the boys were being bathed by Hubby.

I walked in to find Ben with his towel over his head, making noises which were either muffled cries or silly giggles.

When I took the towel off his head, sat down on his step stool, and asked him what was wrong, his face crumpled.

"I don't want you and Daddy to die."

Hubby and I had done our best to be truthful without being scary, feeling completely unsure and at a loss. I wanted to be honest. I wanted to be somewhat matter-of-fact. I wanted to be calm. I did not, under any circumstances, want to scare him. But I also would not, under any circumstances, lie about something like this.

So here it was: The Heavy Stuff.

We explained to him that our Mommies and Daddies were still around, and that they were old. That being old did not mean you died. That we'd be around for his whole life (okay, that was a slightly twisted version of the truth). That people lived to be, "like a hundred," and that "a hundred was, like, forever." We told him that that was why we took such good care of ourselves, why we ate healthy foods and exercised and slept well and drank water and visited our doctors for check-ups, because we wanted to be around for a super long time. We wanted to get older because then we'd get to watch him and his brother grow up.

"And I'll grow up, and I'll have babies, too."
"Yes. You will. And we'll get to see that."

We explained to him that everyone gets older, that it's okay, that it's normal, that old doesn't mean "too old", that it's part of life. We mentioned all of his loved ones who are "old."

"But who will die first? You and Daddy or me?"

Never could I have been prepared for a question like that...a question with an easy answer (God willing, again insert every superstitious saying here, please), but a question that was too heartbreaking to hear my little boy ask me.

"We will, honey, because we are much older. Your life is just starting."

"Who will die first: Tata, Pepe, Abelo, Aba, or Tantala?" (every grandparent plus his pseudo-godmother, all in their late 60s and early 70s, and all integral parts of his daily life).
"I don't know, honey. No one knows. There is no way of knowing that."
"I think Abelo will," he responds, "because he's got really old hair and a really big belly." (The one humorous moment of this conversation.)
Then a pause.
"So I will die before Aidan." He didn't sound upset when he said this, just mathematical.

And at that moment, I can not...I simply can not...believe I am discussing with my four-year-old whether he or his little brother will die first.

"I don't know, honey. You guys are really about the same age. I know it seems like you're much older, but you and Aidan are about the same age, like your Aunt and me. And you guys are going to be really, really old too."

I assured him, yet again, that he had nothing to worry about. That Mommy and Daddy were gonna be around for a long, long time.

"We're not going anywhere, honey. We're gonna be around, for, like, ever."

We went about our business then...he putting on his brand new Spiderman PJs and jumping around like a superhero, me pressing "play" on the iPod for more summer tunes, Hubby cutting the pizza and opening the wine. There was no more talk of dying. We discussed how many toys we'd be bringing him back from our upcoming weekend away to Key West, whether or not Key West was an island and what did it look like, and the location of the Skittles purchased last week.

But after the boys were down, after everything had been cleaned up, after I'd showered, I knew I had to sit down and write this post.

I had to get it out.

I hoped that by doing that, I'd be able to let it go, not dwell, move on.

The conversation left me feeling anxious, vulnerable, scared, and helpless.

I am sure this could have been a beautifully written post, one with poignancy and poetic life lessons, but honestly, I feel spent. I have no "point," no beautiful ending, no epiphany. What I have is a heavy heart, because the conversation I just had with my little boy made me realize how little I can really do to keep him (and us) from the harsh realities of life.


  1. This was a beautifully written post. Honest and raw. Those things are hard to deal with when they come up. My oldest is 10 and I know I still have many more of those that make me realize she is going to be part of this big ol' world. It sucks.

  2. I am a new follower and hesitant to chime in on a post like this. So much easier to tackle something lighter. I will say that I think you handled it well. Kids ask the tough questions and adults aren't always prepared to answer them. And, maybe someday, if/when this topic comes up again (like when a grandparent does actually pass) you can have that conversation about how no one really "dies." Our spirits live on forever. Energy doesn't die. It just changes form. That person will live on forever in their heart and will always be watching over them from The Other Side. And when that next grandparent dies, they will have someone waiting with arms held open to greet them. They will not be alone. No one is ever alone. I hope you don't have to have that conversation for a long, long time. But, it does make the pill a bit easier to swallow. BTW, you have one smart little boy!

  3. Sending you lots of hugs, Liz. These hard conversations always just seem to pop up out of nowhere and you're never prepared for them. Seems to me you handled it beautifully.

  4. I think there is absolutely a lesson here, you have a very "old soul" child who feels comfortable and enough to be vulnerable and open with his parents who obviously encourage and love him. It sounds as if you handled this perfectly and answered everyone of his questions appropriately. I remember having the exact same conversation with my mother when I was in kindergarten and I wish her replies were as gentle and attentive.

  5. I think you handled the situation really well. It's such a tough question, and really all they're looking for at that point is reassurance. You certainly did a great job of that! :)

  6. You did exactly what I did when that question came up: Lie. There's no other way to reassure them, make this issue that they are WAY too young to handle go away and hibernate for a while. You have a very thoughtful boy.

  7. Whoa...what a rough conversation to have...What can you do but bend the truth a little, like we do for ourselves when things are too big for us to understand...Sending you hugs and wishes for safe travels...Have fun!

  8. Oh my God, this same exact thing happened to us on Tuesday. Big Boy started crying out of the blue and said: "Tiny Baby is going to die." (I'm actually working on my post about it right now and will link to you.) What a reminder of how these sweet little creatures who spend so much time running and yelling and playing have these soft, gooey cores. I really appreciated reading how you and your husband handled it. Another thing I love about blogging is learning about parenting from other parents. (Especially the really good ones.) xo

  9. Such a tough challenge. Neither of my kids have broached this topic, but I know it's coming and I think I'll take your approach. Being honest without overwhelming them seems right.

  10. I really cannot believe this has not come up with Hannah. I think she thinks only really old people die. And I'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible. You know how I feel about death... so I'm not sure how the hell I'll talk about it with my little child who looks to me for all of the answers when I have none and am so petrified of the realities of it. Thank you for your honest post. You handled it wonderfully.

  11. This has to be the hardest conversation to have with kids. I want to protect mine from anything bad or scary or awful in the world, but that's just not possible. As they get older, things get easier physically, but so much harder emotionally, and so much more complicated! Guh!

  12. Oh, boy, I'm not ready for these conversations. I would have collapsed into a sobbing, snotty mess after I tucked my kiddo into bed, had this been me. Spent. I hear you. Wow.

  13. I still remember when Vito and I had this conversation - again, no one had passed, no movies or "triggers" of anything related to dying had been encountered; and yet here was my 4-year-old having dinner w/me at our dining table, just us - as we were, teary-eyed asking, "Will Aya and Abue die soon? I don't want them to die." And then full blown, heavy tears streaming down. It was "out of nowhere." And the rest went somewhat like yours except I was fighting back tears the whole time. U handled it very well and said all the "right" things. That's all we can do, really...

  14. Thank you for posting this. I don't know what else to say but that. This was a great post--it spoke to me! I'm a new follower-found you at blogfrog!


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