Amelia’s introduction to death happened quite abruptly, poolside, last summer. While cruising around the edge of the water, she spotted a beetle on its back, roasting in the summer sun. “Mama, bug sleeping!” she announced. My mother, reading in the shade, looked up from her book. “No, honey. The bug is not sleeping. That bug is dead,” she said.
Amelia accepted this information with little fanfare. “Bug dead,” she repeated. Over the following year, we discussed dead bugs whenever we encountered one. Amelia seemed to grasp the basics: dead was different than sleep; dead bugs were never going to move again; dead bugs were free from pain. She didn’t seem to feel that being dead was such a bad way to be.
Very fortunately, other than cockroaches, worms and beetles, Amelia did not encounter death much in early life. But in the last few months, she has been exposed to the death of two people: our elderly neighbor and her nanny’s mother. The latter happened suddenly, when our babysitter’s mother died after being found unconscious in her house. Naturally, our nanny had to make immediate arrangements to fly home, and we had to arrange urgent alternate childcare.
The event led to a lot of questions: “How can Tanna be going home to see her mama if her mother is dead?”, “Where is Tanna’s mama?”, “What happens to us when we die?” and of course: “Are you and Papa going to die, too?”
The most difficult part of this stream of inquiries was their rapid fire emission. I had no time to prepare my perfect, elegant answers! I wanted to put Amelia on pause, Google “what are age appropriate responses to questions about death from a child of three and a half?”, do some reading, then return, totally prepared, to the conversation.
But no such luck: there she was, her shining eyes searching my face, expecting fully that I could explain death and afterlife (or not) in sixty seconds or less, using age-appropriate lingo.
Wheels spinning, I explained that much like a dead bug on the sidewalk, Tanna’s mama was still visible even though she was dead. Amelia’s follow-up question: “Did someone step on her?!”
“No,” I said, “No one stepped on her.”
“Then why did she die?”
“Because she was very old and her body stopped working. Just like if your toy train runs out of batteries and it doesn’t work anymore, Tanna’s mother’s body won’t work.”
“Can’t someone give her new batteries?”
“Well…yes…that’s called an organ transplant…we do that sometimes…but other times the body is too sick even for a new organ.”
“Are you and Papa going to die?”
“Probably not, honey. If we do, there will always be someone to take care of you.”
“I don’t want you to die.”
“Papa and I are very healthy, our bodies work just fine, we don’t plan to die.”
“Will you die when you’re old? I don’t want you to ever die!”
“That won’t happen for a long, long time.”
OMG, WHERE IS MY HANDBOOK?!?!
Balancing honesty with reassurance was quite the challenge. I didn’t want to lie but at the same time, I didn’t want to create anxiety…but death is inherently scary…
Quite suddenly and thankfully, Amelia decided she had had enough of my fumbled answers. “Ok, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Good night!” she said, and rolled into a deep, easy sleep.
Since that time, we’ve occasionally revisited the topic of death, but Amelia seems to have decided that for now, she’s had as much information as she needs or wants. Thank goodness for self-regulation.
Until next time…