How do you tell a child about death? Perhaps you find some picture books on the topic, and you sit, side by side to read, to talk about the person who died, to hug each other and cry together. It seems obvious in retrospect. But that is not the way things unfolded for me and my four-year old, Alice. Parenting, it turns out, is often a series of split-second decisions made under pressure, and this was no exception. I was leaving the next day for the funeral, and I realized I still hadn’t told Alice that Great Grandma, her namesake, had died. We were on our way to church when I broke the news.
“Great Grandma Alice died, my dear,” I said as I was pulling out of the driveway.
“She died?” Alice repeated. “But can she still move?”
“No, dear. When you die you can’t move anymore.”
“But can she still talk?”
“No, she can’t talk anymore.” I looked at her in the rear view mirror, and could see her brow lowering over her eyes, worry setting in.
“But will I die?” Alice started to sob, tears glistening on her red cheeks. “I don’t want to die!” she wailed. And then I panicked. This was not the reaction I had anticipated. I didn’t think she would get death. I was driving. Alice was losing it, and so I said the first comforting thing I could think of.
“You aren’t going to die,” I lied.
“I’m not?” she calmed for a moment. “But why did Grandma Alice die?”
“She was too old,” I said. “Her body got weak and she couldn’t live anymore.”
“But will my body get weak?”
Alice was too smart for my lie, and she was terrified of the truth. All security was suddenly stripped away. Here was death, grinning widely, scaring the bejeebus out of Alice. Stopped at the light on Rogers and Kirkwood, I reached back and rubbed Alice’s knee.
“It will. But not for a long, long time. Only when you get old.”
“But I don’t want to get old!” She started wailing again. “I don’t want to die!” She kicked her legs against her car seat, physically fighting the idea of her own death. Leo, too young to worry, just stared out the window.
“I won’t let you die,” I said.
“But how, Mama? How?”
“I’ll keep you safe,” I said. I wanted to pull the car over, bring my worried girl into my arms, settle her sobs.
“But how will you keep me safe?”
“I’ll keep you healthy, take you to the doctor, strap you in your car seat.”
“You mean like eat my carrots?” she asked through her tears. “I’ll eat my carrots! I’ll eat my broccoli and beans and peas! I will!” and the she paused. “Grandma Alice didn’t eat her healthy food?”
“She did, but she still got so old that her body didn’t work anymore.”
“Will I get that old? I don’t want to get that old!” We were back where we had started, but spiraling. “Will Leo get that old? Will you get that old? Will everyone in Bloomington get that old?” I was quiet. “Mom!” she cried. “Mom! Are you going to die, Mom?”
I dodged the question, and the painful answer. “Alice.” I said. “Alice. You are only four years old. Great Grandma was 98. She was really, really old. Way older than you or me. You like getting older. You like having birthdays. Don’t you want to be five, then six, then seven?” She was quiet in the back seat.
“Yes,” she whined.
“It’s good to get older.”
“Will Leo get old?”
“Yes. But remember he’s even younger than you. He’s only one.”
In the rear view mirror, I saw her looking out the window. Then she asked, “What happens when you die?”
Good God! I thought. I am not prepared for this conversation! “I don’t know,” I told her. But then I felt compelled to say, “You meet God. It’s not scary. Grandma Alice wasn’t scared. She was ready.”
“You meet God? The real God?” Alice asked.
“Yeah,” I said. But I don’t know if that’s what I believe, and thank God we arrived at church. I parked and gathered both kids from the car. When I dropped Alice off at the nursery, she was silent. She did not smile. As I left, she didn’t turn around to say goodbye. She just walked slowly into the room. I turned away and wiped my eyes, my heart heavy and broken. Up until that day, her world did not include death. Now there is no going back.
Laura Lasuertmer for The Poplar Grove Muse