Growing up Catholic, we had a narrative to fall back on. I was also well into middle school before I attended a funeral for anyone I could remember. By then, I had a firm grasp on the concept of death and what I believed happened afterwards. I was much older when someone close to me died.
For my nuclear family, now, religion does not play a role in our narrative on death, so there is little possibility of us venturing down that avenue of explanation. Our daughter is only 4 years old, so much of the complexities surrounding death, including beliefs, would be lost on her.
Hold your mental eye rolls—this is not a rant against religious parenting, nor are there any secular high horses. As parents, our personal beliefs obviously shape our daughter’s instruction, but whatever spiritual journey she embarks on will eventually be her own. Are we good?
This is simply on the topic of death.
The first significant conversation we had with our daughter about death came when we were waiting for a train—she was around two. It was random and mundane, more a chance to have a utilitarian discussion on urban safety. We live in a city so knowing how to properly cross the street or wait on a train platform is pertinent to toddler survival.
“Baby, if you fall down there, you’re going to get smooshed by the train. You’ll be gone forever. Mommy and daddy will be very, very sad.”
There was more to it than that, we rehashed those essential points for several minutes, but that was the gist. It was not the right or wrong way to explain death’s finality, it just was. We boiled it down to death equals “you never wake up, gone forever, and everyone will be sad.” Short and blunt, just the facts.
The end result, though, was no smooshed toddler. Lesson learned.
Did it leave a lot to be desired? Sure. But you are not going to ‘get it all in’ the first time around with a 2 year old. More teachable moments would be required.
As the months flew by and her mind expanded, our conversations on death evolved.
“I smashed that ant, daddy. Is it dead?”
“Yes,” I said shaking my head, “that fucker’s dead.”
“Did you say an adult word?”
“Yes, I did.”
It was not the first insect she had killed, nor would it be the last, but it had been premeditated. She had watched it moving around, doing ant stuff, then summarily snuffed out its life.
I was disappointed in her premeditated homicide, especially because we had discussed not killing insects, but this was a learning opportunity—a chance to teach some empathy. I upped my parenting with an after-school special-like moral lesson.
“You know, that ant is never going back to it’s home. Its friends will wonder where it is and why it never brought food back for the colony. That ant is gone forever.”
She stood there staring down at the ground, twisting back and forth—possibly reflecting on my words. Was it sinking in? Had this casual act of murder turned into a genuine teachable moment? I could almost see the lights turning on in her head.
Parenting journals and blogs would perhaps quote me. I mentally patted myself on the back.
“But mommy smooshed a spider in the apartment…”
I was wrong. She thought she was in trouble.
“How’s it different, daddy?”
“Spiders are good insects until they come inside. Then they’re bad, but not really bad. People fear…”
“Spiders are good?”
“…Yes, they eat bad insects.”
“Eww! They eat them? Why are they bad insects?”
“Because they’re annoying. But ants aren’t, nevermind, don’t kill ants.”
“Because they’ll be dead and their friends will be sad and they’ll never go home?”
She finished with a big smile, as if she had been the one to impart that information on me.
“Close enough, kiddo.
Flash forward a year. We were back in the Midwest for my grandmother’s funeral. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say everyone was devastated—my grandmother had a special relationship with her entire family, and my 4 year old was no exception. Her great grandmother was her ‘Great’.
We discussed what to do with the toddler during the wake and funeral, but decided it was best for her to ‘handle what she could’. We weren’t going to keep her from it (which isn’t an underhanded critique leveled at those who’d do differently).
I had wondered how this moment would go, hoping it wouldn’t happen till she was older, but there we were. Had we prepared her? Could you adequately prepare a 4 year old for death? Will people understand if she loses her shit or says something toddlerish?
An older cousin had opted his 4 year old out of seeing my grandmother’s body. I don’t blame him—it was probably safer that way. Who knows what a toddler will do and say at any given moment. Mine kept walking up the casket and smiling after happily declaring that grandma was dead, which made me cringe, but family laughed it off.
They do say the darndest things.
Yet when it was time to go, she knelt down at the casket and told grandma,
“From my heart to your heart, good bye Great.”
I didn't personally hear this—my mom did.
Instead of crying, freaking out, or trying to poke my grandmother awake, the magnanimous toddler said something candid, sweet, and possibly profound. She might have even meant it.
More importantly, her first real encounter with death was normal. She sensed our sadness and offered affection yet didn’t seem traumatized by the experience. Maybe we had done something right and being honest with her had helped. Maybe explaining death is far more difficult and traumatic for parents to do, than it is for a 4 year old to understand.
I can’t say for sure if she learned something valuable about death from smashing ants all those months before, but she has learned that each life deserves compassion and consideration, which is something her ‘Great’ instilled in all of us.
—Photo Credit: Flickr/Lam Joey