‘What happens when I die, mama?’ – explaining the inexplicable
Is honesty the best policy when fielding questions from a pre-schooler about death?
Jennifer Ryan with her four-year-old son Harry
It all started with wizened vines and a decaying rosemary bush in the back yard. “Why did all the plants die, mama?” Err, because mama forgot to water them. Or maybe I watered them too much?
No, definitely the first one.
“Are those flowers dead?” my son enquires, of the fresh bouquet on the kitchen table.
“Not yet,” I explain, “but they will die in a few days’ time.”
I was slightly thrown by this line of questioning from my four-year-old, but I felt I was handling it pretty well as an “honesty is the best policy” type of modern parent. Go me!
Things escalated from there, however.
“When am I going to die?”
Well, I really was not prepared for that one.
He put the question to me about a month ago and not a day has gone by since that I have not been asked about it in some shape or form.
Initially, I was taken aback by his directness and fluffed the answer a bit (a lot), mumbling something about it not being anything to worry about for a very long time.
That was not an acceptable answer though, because in his world a very long time is that space between a grumpy porridge breakfast on a Wednesday morning and our, “No Montessori! No work!” celebratory brunch with French toast and pancakes on a Saturday.
I grew up in a Catholic household where nobody followed the rules very well, but the whole God, Jesus and the afterlife thing was vaguely entertained. And so, my siblings and I were baptised, we had our communions and our confirmations – the whole nine yards.
Funerals were sad, but the people in the coffins were “in a better place” and their deaths were often “a relief” from whatever suffering that they had experienced in life.
After I left home for the Big Smoke, though, I got notions.
I rejected all that heaven and hell stuff as nonsense and promised myself that I would not go down that route with my as yet non-existent children, that I would be honest with them about the ways of the world as I saw them.
“What happens when I die, mama?”
That one made me think twice about honesty.
Wouldn’t it be nice to tell him that I believed that life on earth was just the beginning and that dying is actually sort of like getting invited to a great big hoolie in the sky, where everyone that you have ever loved is waiting for you and the party never ends?
Again, I tried explaining it away in terms of something that was not to be worried about at his young age. In other words, I bottled it. Again.
“You don’t have to think about it for ages and ages, not until you are older than granny and grandad,” I said.
“Are granny and grandad going to die soon? I don’t want them to die because then they won’t be alive anymore.”
Cue small boy’s tears.
I think I have managed to comfort my child about a concept which I have yet to accept for myself
I really was making a hames of this. Does nobody have some kind of parenting magic formula that covers questions about death?
I asked a colleague in The Irish Times. “Outsource it to Disney. They are experts when it comes to dealing with kids and death,” suggested one.
I asked a friend who is a primary school teacher and has a daughter who turns 16 this year, because I was sure that the combination of those two things meant that she would know what I should do.
“I don’t know,” was the answer that she gave when her daughter first asked her what happens when people die. She even countered it with a, “what do you think happens?” Their conversation has been open and ongoing ever since, she says. They talk about death and its finality freely.
This is very interesting and definitely helpful, but we are not there yet in my house.
“Mama, I don’t want you to die because then you won’t be alive and I’ll be on my own.”
Okay, time to actually parent and, at this point, I think I am beginning to understand where he is coming from. It is not so much death that he is afraid of – because he cannot understand the permanence of it yet – it is the separation from me, the idea of being left alone to fend for himself.
“Even if I’m not here, there will always be someone to look after you. Daddy, or granny and grandad. Lots of people who love you would look after you if I wasn’t here.”
That one went down much better with him and I think I have managed to comfort my child about a concept which I have yet to accept for myself.
A couple of days later I tried explaining death in terms of people not being around anymore and brought up my brother who died when my son was 18 months old. “Remember Uncle Jack? He isn’t here now because he died.”
I can see from the look on his little face that he is searching his mind for memories of Jack, but that they are not there. All of his memories of his uncle are tied to objects that are in the here and now – the truck that used to belong to Jack, the toy that I tell him Jack gave him, the room in granny’s house that used to be his.
Of course, he does not remember him. How could he? He was a baby when he died. But he does know about him, he does see pictures and talk about him and that is what happens when someone dies. Other people think about them and talk about them and remember them. And that is how I will answer his questions from now on.