“Is it dead?”
My daughter spotted a butterfly in the school parking lot. Its wings were flat against the asphalt. Very tiny ants worked along its perimeter.
“Yes,” I said, as she squatted to get a closer look. “Do you know what it means to be dead?”
It was a conversation I’d been putting off. She was only 3 and while that may have been old enough for some parents, my wife and I didn’t think our daughter was ready. We didn’t want to scare her, and we weren’t sure she could process the information in any meaningful way.
The issue had been forced, however, when friends of ours lost their daughter just past her first birthday. “Anna” (not her real name) had never been truly healthy. But even given the physical challenges she’d faced since birth, she should have rightfully expected to live many more years. Her death was sudden. She’d gone into the hospital for a respiratory infection and never come out.
We hadn’t taken our daughter to Anna’s funeral. Many of our daughter’s teachers and parents she knew would be there. It would have meant a lot of explaining that my wife and I just weren’t ready for. It seemed like Anna’s parents understood; the mother carried the card my daughter made in the pocket of her dress, saying it gave her strength.
During the memorial service, the father addressed a full chapel. A woman we knew came late and had to stand in back. “That night at the hospital,” he began, “was the most confusing night of my life.” He’d been a Marine sniper; he’d served two tours in Iraq. He was sturdy as a kick-boxer, with a black, neatly trimmed, beard. “The doctors and nurses told us what our options were. None of them good.” His hands were still and flat against the dais. “I was always grateful for the time we had with Anna. It wasn’t always easy. But she was the right daughter for us.”
I’d often thought this about them, that few people seemed to be equipped with the emotional intelligence required to handle a child with very special, very challenging needs. But they’d taken it all in stride.
“Because sure,” he continued. “You can go through life trying to make things as easy as possible for yourself. But that’s not what life’s about. That doesn’t bring light to anyone. And that’s not what it means to be a warrior.”
His voice was steady. His eyes were dry as he looked at each of us. I knew that if it had been my daughter, I wouldn’t have had the courage to stand up there and say those things. Not so soon after her death. He had somehow put his own pain aside and delivered a sermon of sorts, and in the process, challenged each one of us to be better people.
For weeks after, I heard his words: That’s not what it means to be a warrior.
Two weeks later, Anna’s parents finally held the birthday celebration they’d planned but had put off as her various ailments kept her quarantined. No longer a birthday celebration, of course, but a life celebration. We took our daughter to the party. There was a beach theme. Fishing nets secured balloons against the ceiling. There were blue-sugar octopuses that tasted like Oreos, and outside the kids could dig for seashells in the sandbox.
In the days leading up to the party, I tried to set my daughter’s expectations. I talked about Anna’s mother and father and the other friends she’d see there. I purposely did not mention Anna, to see if my daughter would. She didn’t. Not once. Not until we were sitting on the couch with Anna’s father and grandparents, mid-party.
“Where’s Anna?” my daughter asked.
There was nothing but silence. Everyone had heard.
“She’s not here,” my wife said, eventually.
“Well, where is she?”
More silence. My wife said, “Your dad has a good answer for that.”
I hoped she was right. Because at that moment, I felt only deep shame.
Ignoring Anna’s death didn’t mean she hadn’t died. Of course, my daughter would notice her absence, and ask about her—there were photographs of her everywhere. I’d hoped by not mentioning her that I’d avoid the uncomfortable conversation about death. Instead, I should have talked about what it means to die in terms my daughter could understand. I should have told her Anna would not be at the party because Anna was gone—she was dead.
Back in college, my wife was an intern in a hospital one summer. It was her job to inform family members when their loved one had died. She was instructed to use the word dead when delivering the news. She was told not to use euphemisms. She was not allowed to couch the death in terms that might be misunderstood. Dead is dead, and the family members needed to understand. So did my daughter. But I’d failed her. All I felt that afternoon, seated next to my friend who had suffered an unspeakable loss, who was without question the bravest man I knew, was the depth of my own cowardice.
“We could have not taken her,” my wife reminded me on the drive home. “That would have been truly cowardly.”
Still, I knew what I’d felt in there was the truth. My daughter and I needed to have the conversation. Because not having the conversation was certainly making my life easier, but that’s not what it meant to be a warrior.
There, in the school parking lot, standing outside our car with the sun pouring down, she squatted beside the felled butterfly and pointed to the ants busily carrying on the sometimes grisly work of nature. I remembered that Anna’s mother had chosen the butterfly as her symbol for Anna, the thing she’d keep close to her to remind her of the sweet and happy child she’d lost.
“Is it dead?” my daughter asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Do you know what it means to be dead?”
She shook her head.
“It means that something is gone forever.” I took a deep breath. “It means something is no longer alive.”
I refused to lean on platitudes, or soothe her fears by telling her that the butterfly was in a better place, or worse yet, that it was “God’s will.” I didn’t believe either of those things. I wouldn’t dishonor the butterfly in that way, or pretend to know more about death than I did—which wasn’t much. Dying was a shared experience that each of us would come to in our own time, on our own terms. One of life’s only inevitabilities, which meant the end of one thing, definitely, and perhaps, because no one really knew, the beginning of another.
Honestly, I didn’t know what the truth looked like. But I was at least finally ready to turn away from the easy out.
“It means we won’t ever see this butterfly again,” I said. “Because it’s dead. But being dead is nothing to be scared of. You won’t die for a very long time. And neither will I. And neither will Mom. At least, we hope not. But sometimes things do die, and that’s part of how the world works.”
My daughter blinked, processing the information. Then she stood and wiped her hands on her knees.
“Can we go somewhere special after school?” she asked.
It was her favorite thing to do—to run some kind of errand after I picked her up. I saw no reason not to, given all the life we still had yet to live.
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