A couple weeks ago, our neighbor, Mr. Smith, passed away. He was in his nineties and lived a rich life. After my husband and I visited Mr. Smith’s wife to offer our condolences, our three year old daughter, Arden, asked what happened to him.
He passed away, I said.
What does that mean?
It means he’s in heaven.
Is he there alone?
No, he’s with Jesus.
These questions continued and, because I was unprepared to think of a clever, age-appropriate answer Arden could understand, my responses were circular.
He died. He passed away. He went to heaven. He’s with Jesus.
Over and over again.
Fast forward two days.
Arden discovered a spider in the downstairs bathroom and asked me to get rid of it. I smashed it with a rolled-up magazine, picked up the remains with toilet paper, and flushed Daddy Long Legs down the commode.
Despite watching me get rid of the spider, Arden asked where he (she?) went.
The spider passed away.
Where is he?
He’s in heaven.
Long, painful pause.
Is Mr. Smith also in the toilet?
I was stupefied and speechless. I looked at my husband for help. Say something. Something. What do I say?
Please, God, don’t let Arden ask Mr. Smith’s widow if her husband is in the toilet next time we run into her at the mailbox.
Explaining death is difficult. I’m not sure the majority of adults like to think about it. I sure don’t.
Death makes me feel uncomfortable because it forces me to think about my own mortality.
When will it happen? Will I have enough time to reach my goals? Will I be able to say goodbye to the people I love? Will it be on an airplane?
Lord, please don’t let it be on a plane. (I hate flying. My parents let me watch La Bamba when I was little and it ruined me.)
How will my family feel? Will they get over it quickly or remain in a dark emotional slumber that lasts years? Will my husband remarry?
I hope he remarries. And it’s to a woman who gets as annoyed as I did (do?) every time he puts wet bath towels on the floor. So he can see I wasn’t being irrational.
Will my girls call her “mom” or call her by her first name?
Will she know what to do or say when my girls lose a tooth, get their periods, or ask their dad for money to go on Spring Break in Cancun when they’re in college? (I will haunt them if I see them taking shots at a foam party at Señor Frog’s.)
And here I am getting ahead of myself just like I always do. Overthinking.
But how does someone explain death to a three year old? Kids don’t understand things they can’t see.
I remember my mother trying to explain death to me when I was a young child. My first brush with death that legitimately affected my family happened when my mom unexpectedly lost her sister, Mary, to diabetes. This was different than the roadrunner running off the cliff. This was real. We would never see Aunt Mary again. She was gone. My mother said people who die never come back or see anyone ever again. It was a forever type of thing.
And I understood all I needed to understand. Not coming back. Permanent.
Mr. Smith’s death introduced the first in what will be a line of many difficult conversations that will happen while my kids are little. I just didn’t expect it would happen this soon and I wanted to be prepared, Goshdarnit.
I’m not sure if they way I explained death to Arden was the best way to explain it. But it was my real and honest answer. Sure, I could hop on Amazon and buy one of the zillion “Talking to Your Kids About Death” books, read up on the issue, and give Arden a perfect, airbrushed answer. But it wouldn’t be my answer. It would be someone else’s answer. And I don’t want that.
With raising kids, the parents struggling to explain a difficult concept is as important as the child trying to understand it. Sometimes it’s important for the parents to admit when they don’t really understand why or how something happened. Everyone gets to have their “a-ha! moment”.
A time will come when my husband and I will have to explain controversial events, ideas, and ideologies to our children that make The Spider in the Toilet seem like Disneyworld. And when we do, I don’t want to be too prepared. I want the response to be authentic and unrehearsed, just the way I want my kids to be in their daily lives.