This, asked to me by my three-and-a-half year old, while driving down Mountain Village Boulevard. No warning this question was coming; no provocation – just the stark reality of this ages-old question, posed by a kid who wants to know what this death thing is all about.
What do I tell her?
We’ve always felt honesty is the best policy when it comes to communicating with our kids. So rather than telling her that Eddy the dog went to sleep or passed on, or any other kid-friendly euphemism, I told her our faithful mutt was old and tired and his body wasn’t working right anymore, so we took him to the vet, who gave him a shot so that he could die. Everybody dies, eventually, I told her, and it was just Eddy’s time to go.
Perhaps that explanation was a little too honest. Because since giving the death talk, our little chatterbox has made death an everyday topic of discussion.
“Everybody dies. My friends at school, they’re going to die. Even my best friend Lily – she’ll die.”
Elle is matter-of-fact when she says this. She’s merely stating some new fact, just as she would state that she likes to drink chocolate milk, or has shoes with sparkles on them. Obviously, the finality of death, the sadness of it, the grief and the loss, isn’t part of a three-year-old’s conceptualization of the subject.
Additionally, a 3-year-old doesn’t yet know that speaking of death with such certainty, at least in our culture, is taboo.
“Um, yes, you’re right,” I answer her, as a scene pops into my head: Elodie, circling up her girls at preschool (they’re probably in the little plastic playhouse, cradling naked baby dolls) as her tinny voice gabbers away; “Yes, Annabelle, you are going to die. You too, Hannah. We’re all going to die.”
Wonderful. I’ve totally just become that despised parent who is first to spill the beans about some big secret… like Santa Clause… except instead of repudiating the existence of a jolly man in a red suit I’ve just confirmed the existence of a black-hooded phantom carrying a scythe. Which is much worse.
My self-inflicted parental obligation to be honest with my preschooler about death now smacks head-on into the reality that our society prefers to be mum on the subject. So I’m now spending a lot of time cringing, as my preschooler glibly expounds upon her newfound knowledge about this fascinating topic.
She was at the vet’s office with me when we put Eddy down, and I asked her if she wanted to say goodbye to him, because he was going to die (wouldn’t it be nice to be asked that question every time a loved one dies?)
“But I don’t want Eddy to die!” her lip began to tremble, and tears welled in those big blue eyes.
“Do you want to go out into the lobby and color with your new markers?”
“Yes!” Quivery voice, trembly lip, watery eyes – gone. Like most things for a 3-year-old, the sadness of death is very fleeting. A 3-year-old moves on quickly.
So there isn’t the slightest twinge of concern when she asks: “Where is Grandma? Is she dead, or in Santa Fe?”
“She’s not dead,” I assure her, “just in Santa Fe.”
“But she will be dead, someday,” she points out. “Like, maybe next week.”
You could argue that Elle doesn’t understand death in the same terms as we adults do. Surely she doesn’t comprehend death’s capacity to cruelly halt the flowing current that is one’s time on this plane of existence. But perhaps her so-far uncluttered view of death is, in some ways, a more organic understanding of this thing we humans have pondered since time immemorial. Death is the final complement to life.
Crowfoot, a Blackfoot warrior who lived in the mid 1800s, once said this: What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
And death, perhaps, is just like going under water.
(In memory of Eddy: ?-June 30, 2011.)