A guest post by Matthew Koehler
Death is never an easy subject to broach but when I was a kid there were protocols. Growing up Catholic, we had a narrative to fall back on, and I was also well into middle school before I attended a funeral for anyone I could remember. By then, I had a firm grasp on the concept of death and what I believed happened afterwards.
I was much older when someone close to me died.
For my nuclear family now, religion doesn’t play a role in our narrative on death, so there’s little possibility of us venturing down that avenue of explanation. And, our daughter is just 5 years old, so much of the complexities surrounding death, including beliefs, would be lost on her.
Hold your mental eye rolls- this isn’t a rant against religious parenting, nor are there any secular high horses. As parents, our personal beliefs obviously shape our daughter’s instruction, but whatever spiritual journey she embarks on will eventually be her own. We good?
This is simply on the topic of death.
The first significant conversation we had with our daughter about death came when we were waiting for a train- she was 2ish. It was random and mundane, more a chance to have a utilitarian discussion on urban safety. We live in a city so knowing how to properly cross the street or wait on a train platform is pertinent survival information for a young learner.
“Baby, if you fall down there, you’re going to get smooshed by the train. You’ll be gone forever. Mommy and daddy will be very, very sad.”
There was, of course, more to the conversation but that was the gist. We then spent the next several minutes reiterating the gist from different angles. It wasn’t the right or wrong way to explain death’s finality, it just was. We boiled it down to death= you never wake up, gone forever, and everyone will be sad. Short and blunt, just the facts.
The end result, though, was no smooshed toddler. Lesson learned.
Did it leave a lot to be desired? Sure. But you’re not going to get it all in the first time around with a 2yr old. More teachable moments would be required.
As the months flew by and her mind expanded, our conversations on death evolved. Then one day, insects gained the notice of my growing child and intrigued child.
“I smashed that ant, daddy. Is it dead?”
“Yes,” I said shaking my head, “that fucker is dead.”
“Did you say an adult word?”
“Yes, I did.”
It wasn’t the first insect she’d killed, nor would it be the last, but it had been premeditated. She’d watched it moving around, doing ant stuff, then summarily snuffed out its life.
I was disappointed by her premeditated homicide, especially because we’d discussed not killing insects, but this was a learning opportunity- a chance to teach some empathy. I upped my parenting with an afterschool special-like moral lesson.
“You know, that ant is never going back to it’s home. Its friends will wonder where it is and why it never brought food back for the colony. That ant is gone forever.”
She stood there staring down at the ground, twisting back and forth- possibly reflecting on my words. Was it sinking in? Had this casual act of murder turned into a genuine teachable moment? I could almost see the lights turning on in her head.
Parenting journals and blogs would perhaps quote my simple but ingenious reply. I mentally patted myself on the back.
“But mommy smooshed a spider in the apartment…”
I was wrong. She thought she was in trouble.
“How’s it different, daddy?”
“Spiders are good insects until they come inside. Then they’re bad, but not really bad. People fear…”
“Spiders are good?”
“… Yes, they eat bad insects.”
“Eww! They eat them? Why are they bad insects?”
“Because they’re annoying. But ants aren’t. Nevermind. Don’t kill ants.”
“Because they’ll be dead and their friends will be sad and they’ll never go home?” She finished with a big, self-satisfied smile.
Close enough, kiddo.
Flash forward a year later. We were back in the hometown for my grandmother’s funeral. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say everyone was devastated- my grandmother had a special relationship with her entire family, and my 4yr old was no exception. Her great grandmother was her “Great”.
We discussed what to do with our daughter during the wake and funeral, but decided it was best for her to “handle what she could.” We weren’t going to keep her from it (which isn’t an underhanded critique leveled at those who’d do differently).
I’d wondered how this moment would go, hoping it wouldn’t happen till she was older, but there we were. Had we prepared her? Could you adequately prepare a 4yr old for death? Will people understand if she loses her shit or says something toddlerish?
An older cousin had opted his 4ry old out of seeing my grandmother’s body. I don’t blame him- it was probably safer that way. Who knows what a toddler will do and say at any given moment. Mine kept walking up the casket and smiling after happily declaring that grandma was dead, which made me cringe, but family members laughed it off. They do say the darndest things.
Yet when it was time to go, she knelt down at the casket and told grandma, “From my heart to your heart, good bye Great.”
I didn’t personally hear this- my mom did.
Instead of crying or trying to poke my grandmother awake, the magnanimous toddler said something candid, sweet, and possibly profound. She might’ve even meant it.
More importantly, her first real encounter with death was normal. She sensed our sadness and offered affection yet didn’t seem traumatized by the experience. Maybe we’d done something right and being honest with her had helped. Maybe explaining death is far more difficult and traumatic for parents to do, than it is for a 4yr old to understand.
I can’t say for sure if she learned something valuable about death from smashing ants all those months before, but she has learned that each life deserves compassion and consideration, which is something her “Great” instilled in all of us.
*Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on DC Daddy’s Wine Time. It has been edited and modified for Mumbling Mommy*
Matthew Koehler is currently a freelance writer and dad who formerly worked as an ESL teacher in Nagano, Japan and Washington, D.C. When not chasing his five-year-old daughter around, he chronicles his fathering experiences in blog form and is always on the look out for obscure beers. For the time being, he resides in the ever-changing SW neighborhood, just down the street from Nationals Ballpark. His work can be found at Greater Greater Washington, Parent Co. (now under Motherly), and Scary Mommy.
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