A little while ago, I wrote about trying to talk to a child about death and have since been exploring the topic on and off with other parents I know. Below is an e-mail excerpt from an old friend who actually used to be my teacher and mentor in high school. Her 15 year-old son Julian underwent treatment for cancer last year (but just celebrated an all-clear CT scat last week – hurrah!!!) and I always say that I would rather be in my shoes (with the cancer happening to me) than in hers (with it having happened to my child) – but the truth is, given the choice, neither of us would choose any of those shoes; we’d gladly walk barefoot forevermore. Over coals, even. Anyway, I thought her story about talking to her son when he was just four years old about the recent death of their pet rabbit was heartwarming, and captures the poignant innocence and confusion of a child’s perception of death — and the accompanying general feeling of parental ineptitude on the subject!
Our rabbit died (Fluff-fluff, named so by Julian who pronounced it Luff-Luff). She was litter trained and beautiful, by the way. But, she died during surgery which I would never do again. (You’ve heard the expression ‘scared rabbit?’ She actually died of a heart attack after she woke up fixed, and I think she was scared to death.) She also used to ride in the car with us and sit on the table part of Julian’s car seat. We almost caused some accidents by mesmerized and amazed drivers. Anyway, she died and I cried and cried and cried and we buried her in the back yard, in the garden. We had a little ceremony and I frequently mentioned the word ‘died,’ so Julian would get used to it. About four or five days later, Julian and I had this conversation:
Julian: “Mommy, I think something’s wrong with Luff-Luff.” (Did I mention that this story has some hilarious moments?)
Me: “Yes, Darling: there is. She’s dead. She died.”
Julian: “I know, but something else is wrong.”
Me: “Oh my. What’s that?”
Julian: “She’s still in the ground.”
Me: “Yes, because she died. She’s dead, so she’s still in the ground.”
Julian: “I know, but she’s not coming up.”
Me: “Coming up? Like a flower?”
Julian: “Yes. Like that.”
Me: “Oh. Well, that’s because she’s not like a flower. She’s going to stay in the ground and become part of the earth, but I know some flowers are going to grow on top of her.”
Then he cried on and off for some days. Death is crap. The worse death moment of my life was when Sick Kids gave me a book on how to tell your child he’s…you know what. I was catatonic for several days: then I stomped on, shredded and burned the book.
Anyway, I think you’re doing great with Georgia. [And] I’m rsvp-ing right now to your sayanara cancer party.
Anyone else with talking-to-kids-about-death stories or ideas or tips – please, bring ‘em on. It takes a village, remember?