The Boy just about broke my heart this weekend.
“Mommy, someday I’d like to have a Grandpa,” he told me as we were driving around doing errands. It shook me. I lost my father when The Boy was just 8 month old and my husband’s dad died 15 years ago. One of my greatest regrets is that my boys will never know their grandfathers.
The comment came on the heels of a number of other conversations about death. Just the day before I had to explain why he won’t be able to see some of the Lions at the zoo this year (the two male lions at our local zoo died of illness and old age over the winter). As I tried to explain what ‘dead’ meant, The Boy kept telling me he’d give the Lions a ‘pinch’ (what he called needles) and that would make the Lions all better (I know the mental picture of that is pretty interesting but keep to the big picture here, I am trying to explain major life lessons here). Adding the complication of being a church going family, and the fact that it’s Easter-time, makes this a growing problem and one that needs to be addressed. Sunday school this week talked about how Jesus died and then came back.
These are huge and complicated concepts. The Boy is incredibly smart but he has trouble working out the idea of yesterday and last year, never mind life and death. I also worry about the impact actually understanding these concepts. I made the mistake of explaining the Lions were sick and died and then compounding that by saying Bumpy (my father) got sick and died. Considering my mother is currently ‘sick,’ I’m worried about the ramifications of that little slip. I was careful to avoid all the trap words like ‘lost’ and ‘went to sleep’ but I think I stuck my foot in it there.
Since The Boy first posed the question I have been doing a little reading, getting ready for the next time (cause it will happen and it will be soon, knowing him). Honesty seems to be the best approach – which is good because that’s they way I explain pretty much everything except jolly bearded men who bring gifts. At this age (3) I’m also told I shouldn’t expect him to grasp the concept of permanence; apparently he won’t understand that dead means the person or animal is not coming back (the Easter story is particularly unhelpful in this situation!). Simple explanations seem to be best, like ‘his body stopped working and the doctors couldn’t fix it.’
I struggle with the whole idea of explaining death, in part, because I don’t want him to become a fearful child. I want to encourage his curiosity, but too much knowledge can be difficult for a young child. I was afraid of everything as a kid: of the dark, of monsters, of water, of skiing, you name it. The Boy has managed to avoid that so far and I am worried about the possibility of creating fears.
I guess this time Mama has to just suck it up, be a little brave and trust herself to say the right thing.