“Daddy, what’s the situation with death?”
Not long ago, I wrote about my Great Aunt Charlotte passing away. That event has inspired all sorts of interesting and reasonably difficult conversations over the last few months with Julianna. For this post, and for the record, Chloe is not particularly interested in these matters yet which is fine by me.
To catch the new people up, Julianna is 6+, about to start the 1st grade, enjoying her first summer camp experience, mildly sensitive about emotional things, and pretty inquisitive.
To put the sensitivity into context, which I think is relevant for this conversation, here’s a quick story from yesterday afternoon: We were on our way to the pool, listening to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in the car. We are just going through it for the first time. I’m not sure if you are familiar with story, but if you aren’t, google it. We listen to a lot of Broadway showtunes with the girls (deal with it). They love it. Anyway, the finale, “Any Dream Will Do” comes on. We have pulled into the parking lot but the girls want to hear the rest of the song. The lyrics talk about Jacob coming to Egypt to reunite with Joseph and his sons and yada yada yada. Happy Ending City. Chloe says, “Daddy, Julianna is crying.” I turn to the back seat and sure enough, she’s quietly crying. I ask why. She tells me that she’s crying because she’s happy now that she knows, for sure, that Jacob gets to be back with his sons, and in particular Joseph.
“So this is a happy cry?”
“Yes but I don’t want to listen to this song for a while because I don’t want to cry every time.”
Ok, so this is what we’re dealing with.
Aunt Charlotte was an art lover, both creating and consuming. She didn’t have any dependents so when she passed away, we all visited her apartment and took a few pieces of her art to remember her. In our house, we have Aunt Charlotte paintings in our bedroom and both of the girls’ bedrooms. There was one painting that she had just recently started working on but hadn’t finished. It was to be a painting based on a picture of Julianna with my sister’s daughter. Unfortunately, she didn’t get very far into this painting. My niece wasn’t really started yet but Julianna’s outline is there. We recognize it very clearly from the picture it is based on. To be honest, its perhaps a bit haunting but also quite beautiful. When you look at it, if you knew Charlotte, you can almost feel her hand on it. Its sort of comforting I think. Its hanging in Julianna’s room. She seems to really like it…other than occasionally when it gets her thinking about Charlotte…which leads to last night when she called me in after I thought she was already sleeping…
“Daddy, what’s the situation with death?”
Um…what do you mean?
“Like, what happens with death? How does it work? When does it happen?”
Ok, so here we are. I don’t claim to be an expert on children. I’m certainly not a doctor or a licensed anything (other than a licensed driver). She’s brought these types of questions up before, recently, with both my wife and I and I don’t think we’ve exactly figured out how to comfortably answer.
So last night I just decided to go with it. F*ck it. We’ll do it live.
The following were the bits and pieces of what we talked about, in no particular order.
Well, Julianna, can you tell me 2 things your heart does?
“It moves air around my body.” Right. It is also how we “love”. So if we agree on those 2 things, let’s talk about them. First, the stuff we can explain-ish.
I found my pulse under my neck and put her fingers there. I asked her if she could feel the the “bump bump, bump bump.” She smiled a bit and told me she could. Well, that’s my heart, actually working. Its pushing the blood all over my body. Bringing the air all over the place to make sure I’m good to go. I helped her find her own pulse. Another smile. There it is. Her heart is working.
Now that we “know” how being alive works, let’s discuss what happens when the heart stops working. While we don’t have to worry about this for a long time (more about this in a bit), there comes a point, a very long time from now, when the heart stops being able to push the air around your body and that’s when the death situation happens.
“So what happened with Aunt Charlotte? Her eyes opened and then like, they closed really quickly? How does that feel?”
That’s not exactly how it works. I explained that it wasn’t painful. That if you could imagine, and again, not something to worry about for a long time, the most peaceful sleep. She closed her eyes for a great sleep and that was it.
“Ok, so can we go and see her?”
Well, we can’t see her body.
This brought us into the next phase of the conversation…funerals and cemeteries.
[Spoiler alert for those worried: she slept great last night – I didn’t ruin her – I don’t think]
We talked about a funeral and how people get sad because they won’t be able to see or touch or hug or laugh or have a conversation with the person, but that we spend a lot of time, almost like a party, telling great stories and remembering the great times.
We talked about what a cemetery was and how for some people, their bodies were put in this place and that we could always go and visit if we needed a real “place” to see but that anytime we wanted, Charlotte’s spirit would be in Julianna’s heart. That she could always think about Charlotte or look at the paintings she now has hanging in her room and smile knowing that some part of Charlotte was with her always.
I told her that it wasn’t as important that someone died as it was to enjoy the time that you are alive with that person.
“Well, when are you going to die?”
Nobody really knows that. Like I’ve said before, I’m pretty lucky to have a lot of healthy people in my family so I used the following:
Julianna, I’m your daddy and you know how old I am right?
And who is my daddy?
Is he still alive?
And how old is he?
And who is his daddy?
Great Grandpa Abe.
And is he still alive?
And how old is he?
Right. You shouldn’t worry about any of those things. We didn’t discuss that not every story plays out that way. I think the goal was to give her some of answers for her questions and make her feel like there was less mystery, while not focusing on the scary parts.
“Well, the next time someone dies, I want us to have a party at our house to remember them.”
She went to sleep shortly after that without fuss. I’m sure the conversations will continue over time. I consider myself to be a pretty logic & science-based thinker. I like to know how things work and why things are the way they are. I think a lot of kids, Julianna included, are like that. There are certainly topics and certain details that are better discussed when they are older but I’ve been trying to put myself in her shoes on this one. I can relate the general fear of the unknown. If there’s an explanation to be had, or at least part of an explanation, why would not share it in as appropriately a way as possible.
At least until she asked this:
“Like, how do your bones get out of your skin after you die?”