I will never forget the night my older son, who was maybe 5 or 6 at the time, appeared in the living room doorway long after we thought he was asleep, sobbing. His narrow shoulders were shaking and his hand was pressed to his lips. “What’s wrong, sweetie?” we asked him, bewildered.
“D-d-does extinct mean the dinosaurs are never, ever coming back?” he wailed. The downside of nonfiction bedtime stories.
Nothing prepares you for these moments when you’re a parent. Sometimes, you get to decide when and how to impart information to your children; other times, you’re simply thrust into a situation and have to think on your feet. In my experience, that’s more the norm.
For a long time, we didn’t talk to our kids about death. We didn’t have to. In our family, I’m lucky enough to have a 101-year-old grandfather and a death-defying father-in-law who’s fought off aggressive cancer not once, but twice. It’s not that we were trying to shield our children from death, it’s that I know my kids and how much information they want and can handle. (Except, clearly, in the case of dinosaurs.)
When Sandy Hook happened, we chose not to tell our kids about it. When the Boston Marathon bombings happened, we shared selective details and focused on the survivors and the helpers. But when a close friend died recently, the mom of kids their age, we did not have a choice. We had to have a conversation about death.
I needed help navigating these uncharted waters, so I sought grief counseling at my church, where I’m not exactly a regular these days. Going into it, I was skeptical. Would the reverend spout scripture at me, or give me practical guidance on handling this devastating loss?
Here’s the part where I warn you I’m about to talk about religion. I know this is a touchy subject, but this is my blog, not Thanksgiving dinner. Please understand I am not looking to incite a debate here. I’m simply sharing my own experience having to do with my own beliefs. If you would like to respectfully share your related experiences or beliefs on this topic, please do so in the comments. Good? Good.
I walked out of there elated that I chosen to seek help. The priest’s words were exactly what I needed to hear. Without going into a big, long exploration of my faith or lack thereof, let’s just say I did not arrive at her office in a state of peaceful acceptance. I was heartbroken. And I was pissed off. I wanted to punch anyone who said my friend was in a better place. Better than being alive with her babies? Really??
So I was immensely cheered when the priest said, “Sometimes you just want to say to God, what the f*ck?!” I DID want to say “What the f*ck” to God! And who knew priests could say “f*ck”?! I adored this woman.
When we came to the part about talking to kids about death, she said it’s a matter of finding a metaphor that makes sense to your child. For example, lots of kids are into nature and can understand that things change form – for instance, snow melts into water and caterpillars turn into butterflies. So kids can understand that a person who has died has not disappeared from our lives forever, they’ve simply changed form. And they can still be with us – both metaphorically in our hearts, but also quite literally in the case of mother and child. My friend will live on in her children. She will always be a part of them.
Here’s where I bring it back to the dinosaurs. While we were on vacation – in what happens to be the horseshoe crab capital of the world – we learned some things. Like that horseshoe crabs have been around for over 300 million years, since before the dinosaurs even!! And we also learned that many scientists believe dinosaurs evolved into the birds we see today, like the seagulls stalking up and down the sand among the prehistoric crabs. So standing there on a beach in 2014, we were looking at creatures that have existed in one form or another for millions of years. My mind was blown.
The other thing the priest said that I liked is maybe don’t talk about heaven as being “up there” and the rest of us as being “down here.” When we got to the root of my son’s fears about death, it was really about being separated from his loved ones.
On that beautiful beach that day with my kids, it was easy even for a skeptic like me to feel, if only for a moment, like heaven and earth, the living and dead, and the past and present were not so far apart after all.