Monday, September 13, 2010

Talking about death

My in-laws' dog died. She was 12 or 13 and went into a fairly rapid decline, and then she was gone. She was a fixture in their house, and my daughter was quite fond of her - even if the feelings were not exactly returned.

Nineteen years ago this month, my dad died after a long, painful illness (Rhuematoid Arthritis) which led to complication after complication.

My daughter is almost 4, which means that a) she notices things like missing dogs, b) she's busy exploring family relationships, and c) she spends her days with many little boys who like to play superhero and kill bad guys. With this combination, I find myself having to deal with questions about death. A lot.

I'm fairly comfortable discussing death - it's the natural order of things - but my husband is not. He tends to change the subject, and was prepared to ignore the death of his parents' dog. His parents had the same intent. But, my daughter asked me where the dog was, and I answered. I told her that the dog got old, got sick, and died, and she wasn't around any more. She was asking questions (why did she get old, why did she get sick, etc.) that were making everyone else uncomfortable, and I finally mumbled something about going to play in heaven, and that was the end of the conversation.

Our vacation this year was a trip to see my family. We had a great time - we went to the pool, to the beach, to the farm...all the things I did when I was a kid. But this led to an exploration of my family, who my daughter doesn't see as often as she sees her father's family. We had a long discussion of why my daddy was dead...which I'm not sure she quite understood. But, it was about the same story as the dog. He got old, he got sick, and then he died.

My girl is not at all traumatized by death. She has asked several times why my daddy is dead. She asks why the dog is dead. She hasn't quite connected that death with the "killing" that she's doing when she's pretending to be a superhero. It will become clear to her eventually, I suppose.

Meanwhile, she also discovered the teddy bear that I've had since I was born. She is a huge lover of stuffed animals, so she desperately covets that bear. I told her she could have it when I was dead. She likes to ask me from time to time - "I can have that bear when you're dead?" It freaks my husband out a little.


  1. I'm all for honesty with kids - rather than half truths that just confuse them more.

    But honestly, you are hanging on to that bear until you cark it? Shame on you for depriving the four year old a teddy.

    (welcome back to blogging btw)

  2. Two great kids books about death (maybe your husband should read them!):
    The Tenth good thing about Barney by Judith Viorst, and Lifetimes by Robert Ingpen. I'm all for honesty about loss and death too.

    Good luck helping your husband deal with death (assuming you are!) Staring at the Sun by Irvin D. Yalom (psychotherapist) is a good adult book dealing with the topic of how the fear of our own death, that we hide from and don't acknowledge, impacts on the way we choose to live. And what we can do to face and overcome that fear, and thus live more fruitfully.

    Doesn't sound like your girl has many issues, but I think books are always good reinforcers of old discussions. See if your local library stocks or can get them in?

  3. My little girl got very familiar with death the year we lived at the beach. We were constantly running across dead birds, fish, jellyfish, sharks, sting rays, etc. And then our cats died. So we have talked about it a lot. Now she just needs to stop telling people they are old and going to die!

  4. My husband doesn't like to talk about it either. I still have no idea what he wants 'done' with him when he passes or what kind of measures he'd like taken (or not) if he can not decide for himself.
    My oldest tends to ask me questions more than my husband even though I tend to give more info than needed, I think he likes that I give it.
    I think it's good to talk about it.
    I am afraid of death. My biggest fear is that I won't ever get over my fear of truly living, that I'll never have really lived when it comes.

  5. I had to laugh a little at the end. When ,y daughter was little she had seen something about how hunters stuff their animals (can't for the life of me think of what it's called at the moment) and then she asked my mother if she could stuff her then she died. Like the saying goes, kids say the darnedest things!

  6. Oh, my. I would be a little freaked out by that question myself, regardless of who asked it. o_O"

    -Barb the French Bean

  7. I am also very matter of fact about death. It's a natural part of life and we are all going to do it some day.

    I think its nice that you feel comfortable discussing death with your daughter. My parents didn't. The first funeral I went to was my fathers.

  8. I agree about being honest with kids, but just like your hubby I am totally uncomfortable talking about death. It's just one of those things I guess.

  9. We are matter of fact about death, it's the "circle of life" and children follow our cues, especially when done in the loving and calm manner you described. We are not immortal, crazy concept though that may be.