How do you talk to a 3 year-old about death, especially when you have cancer?
For a while now, my husband and I have anticipated that Georgia would start asking questions we don’t quite know how to answer; that she would be tuning into our conversations about cancer and possibly even getting confused or frightened. We know she’s absorbing words like “cancer” and “treatment” and “chemo” – and we don’t know how to help her make sense of them without scaring her. She could easily mix her understanding of my regular visits to hospitals and doctors into what little she grasps about death from storybooks* and movies. We knew we needed to be able talk calmly and directly with Georgia about death and dying – but we didn’t know how to get there.
Enter Morgan Livingstone, Child Life Specialist and Georgia’s new buddy. She came into our lives when I contacted Rethink Breast Cancer with my concerns and asked if they had any programs to support parents of young children. I was amazed to find out that they could send a specialist to our home to explore through play what Georgia might be thinking or wondering about.
Morgan and I talked at length before she met Georgia so that she would know how my husband and I feel; we speak pretty openly about my sickness and treatment and prognosis, but we hadn’t figured out how to answer the tough questions. Morgan has good ideas, and helps us to frame what we want to say. She tells us we need to use the actual words “death” and “dead” because little kids take things literally and euphemisms just confuse them. She also advised me to give a name to my illness; to say that I sometimes don’t feel well because I have cancer, and that it’s not like a cold or flu and that Georgia can’t catch it from me. Above all, Morgan stresses the importance of being consistent: she says that Georgia will come back to a subject over and over again until she thinks she understands it, and that we can’t change our story on her or she will become more confused and less trustful of the subject – and possibly of us.
Smart lady, our Morgan. She’s like a hip, blonde Patch Adams. She comes to visit Georgia every few weeks and they play and talk and make things together… Later, Morgan and I debrief to get an idea of what might be going on in Georgia’s mind; where she is in her understanding of things.
We all love this woman. She does amazing work – and Georgia is especially crazy about her.
But still I struggle with how to possibly answer two questions in particular, should they arise: Mama, will you die from your cancer? and What happens when someone dies?
To the first, on a good day I think I can say “We don’t think so. Sometimes some people die from cancer, but I have very good doctors and very good medicine to make me better.” I can say that because I believe it’s the truth. Most of the time.
The second question, What happens when someone dies? is a mighty big one, especially for someone way too young to pronounce Kierkegaard (is one ever old enough?) or know what “theology” means. Then there is the problem of my husband and I having rather ambiguous beliefs and zero affiliation with institutional religion. We don’t do church, mosque or synagogue, and we think white folks who shave their heads and drape themselves Buddhist robes are a little goofy, but we’re pretty sure they’re at peace with their pretentions, so more power to ‘em. Actually, I envy anyone who subscribes to any faith, because I’m sure it is a great comfort to have a deep reservoir of belief to dip into in dark times. Basically, my policy is, as long as you don’t get all fanatical with people who don’t share your beliefs, then go for it: get your faith on.
But, formally faithless though I may be, I do firmly believe in the soul. And after much searching of it, and no small amount of discussion with my cancer shrink, mom, and husband, I have come up with this answer to What happens when someone dies:
“We don’t really know. Different people believe different things happen when we die. You can ask them what they think too. Like Glamma (Georgia’s grandmother) – she believes we all go to live with the angels, and that might be what happens. I do know that when someone dies we can’t see them or hug and kiss them anymore. But even though you can’t hug and kiss them, they never stop loving you and you always have them in your heart, wherever you go, forever.”
That’s my first draft. I’m still working on being able to get past the part about not being able to “hug and kiss anymore” without completely choking, because I can’t imagine a time when I can’t hug and kiss my Georgia, and all the other people I love so much. And I hate to imagine a time when they can’t hug and kiss me.
Sure enough, the other night I very nearly had to deliver that little speech. My husband was working late and Georgia and I were curled up together watching the animated movie “Up” (a safe-enough sounding title, I thought) when of course the man’s wife up and dies and Georgia asks:
“Is she dead?”
“Yes, honey she died.”
“Was she in the hospital?”
“Did you die?” (This, presumably, because I go to the hospital a lot.)
“No, I’m alive, I’m right here with you. People go to the hospital for lots of things, like to get better and fix boo boos.”
“Why did she die then?”
“I think because she was very old.”
“Why is that man sad?”
“Because he loves her and he can’t see her anymore. He can’t hug and kiss her anymore.” (Face turned away, keeping voice steady… or steadyish.)
“Because when someone dies that’s what happens: you can’t hug and kiss them or see them anymore, but you can still love them and they always love you. And you can still talk to them.”
Thankfully at this point the old man in the movie corroborated my explanation by addressing a photo of his dead wife, God love him. Then the story continued on another path, and she was absorbed in it once again. “What’s that boy doing..?”
Whew! I silently sighed my relief as she moved on. For now. The questions will be back again. And I know I need to be ready, or as ready as I can be.
Onward, brave soul – this is motherhood and you signed up for it. But keep the Kleenex handy.
*By the way, has anyone else noticed that almost all the Disney princesses are motherless? Seriously, what is up with that? It’s bizarre enough that they all look like strippers, but strippers with dead mothers? Creepy….