It was just the two of us at the dinner table. We were eating my daughter’s favorite meal and talking about the kinds of things that concern preschoolers.
After a lull in the conversation–part of which took place in a make-believe language–about her stuffed animals, drawing, playing in the gym and funny things other kids said at preschool, she turned to me and said: “I don’t want to die.” I was taken aback–her closest brush with death was when her grandmother died nearly two years ago when she was, I thought, too young to remember.
Clearly something was bothering her, however, so I replied that no one wanted to die and added that I think dying is hard because we have to say goodbye to people we love, like Grandma, and then wait a long time to see them again.
In my mind’s eye I could clearly see my mother’s hospital room where we said our last goodbyes. I knew we wouldn’t be seeing her again in this life. We waved one last time from the doorway and, taking the hardest step of my life, turned and left for the airport. She died six weeks later.
“But I don’t want to wait a long time to see Grandma,” she wailed. “Neither do I,” I answered, and together we sobbed for a while.
Once the tears subsided, we continued on with the evening routine, finishing the now cold spaghetti and brushing teeth. By bedtime she had cheered up and wanted me to sing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” as she hopped into her room:
Here comes Peter Cottontail
Hoppin’ down the bunny trail
Hippity hoppin’, Easter’s on its way
As I finished the verse it occurred to me that Easter might offer a way to talk about death without the painful associations of deceased relatives. So I told her why we celebrate Easter–Jesus died and came back to life and we will too. Her incredulous response: “Jesus died and came back to life?! I don’t understand!” I said I didn’t understand how it worked either, but that was the promise of Easter–everyone who dies will come back to life. “But how? Where do they all live?”
“Well, they live in heaven, with Jesus.”
“Where’s that?! People die and come back to life?! No way!”
Yeah, I thought to myself, I guess it is pretty incredible. I mean, I couldn’t remember ever not believing in the resurrection or fearing death as a child. The earliest memory I have of discussing death was a sacrament meeting talk my mom gave using her props from primary–a cardboard figure for the body and a cutout sheet of tracing paper for the spirit. That was about the time my grandfathers died the year I was in kindergarten, and I just remember feeling that the lesson made intuitive sense.
But now that it was my turn to pass along to the next generation the assurances of life after death, I realized that I had yet to really grapple with those prospects. Recent and unexpected indications of health problems had me ruminating in not particularly productive ways about mortality, and watching my mother’s coffin sink into the grave a couple of years ago has left behind a heavy sense of finality that I haven’t yet managed to dispel.
So for the time being I deflected. “Let’s just try to be safe and healthy and live for a really long time,” I said. And then we read a book about Lowly Worm. We’ll revisit the topic again someday, and I hope to be better prepared when we do.
In the meantime, I join with the father of the child afflicted with a dumb and deaf spirit in pleading: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
How about you, dear readers; what kind of success and/or difficulties have you encountered in discussing these topics with children?