March 3, 2008

The Tough Questions

Mia, my father-in-law and I were out yesterday evening picking up takeout. We'd stopped at a light and there, directly ahead of us was a cemetery.

Mia: What's that? A playground?
Me: No, that's not a playground.
Mia: Well what is it?
Me: Um.
Mia: Huh? What is it?
Me: It's a cemetery.
Mia: ...

I expected the follow-up. I was waiting for it, the gears in my mind spinning, trying to catch upon the answer that wouldn't lead to any more, tougher questions. I looked at my father-in-law, he looked at me, blank expressions on both our faces. And then it came. The question. Mia asked, "When is my next birthday?"

Both my father-in-law felt as if we'd dodged a bullet, a particularly lethal and speedy one. He later admitted he was just watching to see how I was planning on answering the inevitable question. The one I didn't have to answer. What's a cemetery, daddy? And I realized - sitting there gears turning in my mind looking at the red light and the cemetery beyond it hoping for the light and the topic to change and imploring my mind to come up with a creative answer - that I didn't have an answer.

Hell, I'm the guy who told Mia that bugs I killed were going to live with Jesus. Of course, I didn't have an answer to the Jesus question nor did I want to explain death. And I still don't. I mean, sure, death is a part of life but it's, well, death. To explain it is to admit it happens to you - to everyone. And while I'm not especially sensitive to that myself - I don't stay up nights worrying about my own demise - I am sensitive to Mia's perception of death. Particularly hers, her mother's and mine. Combine this with the fact that Mia is wicked-smart, I somehow don't think that that's where people go to play with Jesus or that's where amazingly carved rocks shoot out of the center of the earth is going to fly.

So once again, I turn to you, oh wise internet. How do you deal with death? And what have you or would you tell your kids? Fail that, what's your best bullshit excuse for the existence of cemeteries?

Posted by Chris at March 3, 2008 6:21 AM

Zoinks, Scooby! That is a biggie! I started with flowers. When a plant died, I made a hole in the ground and placed a small rock on top. I told the kids that the plant had a body that was tired and old and it had to leave it behind there. We moved up to hamsters the next year. I think there are some great books for kids on this, but Mia may be a little young for that still, I dunno. At least you have Beth to punt to when the tampon questions arise.

Death. That's a hyooge thang. I think, in part, the knowledge of that begins our slippery slope into existential anxiety.

And...w00t for me for being in pole position YET AGAIN!

Posted by: Julia at March 3, 2008 7:10 AM

I took the boys to the cemetery to "visit" my grandparents when they were about 2 and 4. It was an unwise move. I didn't really think they'd think anything of it...but oh, the questions! My favorite, I think, was "Can she feel THIS?" as Drew jumped up and down on my Grandmother's grave. Uh-huh.

I answered death questions for months. And, as I believe in not lying to my children, I answered everything honestly. That meant that often I said "I don't know, honey. I wish I did." I also often said "let's look that up."

Good luck.

Posted by: Alissa at March 3, 2008 8:01 AM

It is a place where teenagers go to drink beer and smoke cigarettes.

Posted by: william at March 3, 2008 8:02 AM

I wish I had words of wisdom to share. I was introduced to death at a young age and was preoccupied for many years with my own death and that of my family.

Posted by: Maria at March 3, 2008 8:34 AM

That's a tough one. My daughter someone had a concept of death before she'd really asked about it. She was probably a bit older than Mia at the time though. I'm assuming she picked it up from kids or other family members. But I still freaked when she asked. I tried to be as honest as I could, but also spare her as much as I could. When my grandfather died, she was 4 1/2 and she asked where he went. I told her that he had died. When she wanted to know why, all I could come up with was something about how his time here was through, he had had a great life, and now he was going to heaven. It seemed to work for her. But I still get questions. And when we drive by cemetarys (which is a daily occurance when school is in session), she gets impossibly quiet while staring at the headstones. And will add comments like "That's a lot of people dead.", or, "Those poor people are dead. I bet their family is sad. I miss grandma & grandpa." (for the record, she means her GREAT grandparents, her grandparents are still alive). It's hard to explain death to a kid when I don't think most of us fully grasp it.

I'm really not sure if I even answered your question, but, there it is all the same.

Posted by: js at March 3, 2008 8:41 AM

Saved by the attention span of a two year old!

Posted by: Mom On The Run at March 3, 2008 8:51 AM

My father died in an accident when I was 2 and I witnessed it so I've known about death for a VERY long time. I guess with my own daughter I was always just very open but only answered the questions she asked and didn't go into further explanation unless another questions followed my answer. It seemed a reasonable way to me to handle her questions.

Of course now...she is about to graduate with a degree in funeral services...hmmmm....

Posted by: daisy at March 3, 2008 8:59 AM

I'm trying to remember how I came to realize what cemeteries were. I remember being at the cemetery for my grandpa's funeral when I was 3 1/2 but I don't really recall fully understanding what death meant. I do remember being quite young (5, 6, 7...somewhere in there) and playing cemetery games with some friends. You know, the cross your fingers and make a wish as you drive past type games. I remember being deathly afraid of cemeteries until my friend died. Then almost instantly I became comfortable and familiar with them.

So...that doesn't help answer your question. heh I'm sure my parents explained it to me as some point but I think that my friends and/or movies/tv were my biggest informants.

Posted by: Sparkle Pants at March 3, 2008 9:01 AM

There are many questions out there that we stress about answering. We want to give the best answer possible, but sometimes thinking about that answer too much makes things worse. Be simple. Most little ones just want a one or two sentence answer. Sure, the wheels in their head will spin crazy for a bit and you'll be asked more questions, but initially, start out small.

My son really doesn't want me to have anymore birthdays. He is worried about me dying. Sure he is worried about being left alone, but he seems to be more concerned with not knowing how to drive and being stuck at home! Their thoughts can be deep, yet so plain. Roll with it! :)

Posted by: Holly at March 3, 2008 9:11 AM

For the longest time, our oldest thought you turned into a statue when you died ala Abraham Lincoln. Guess we took him to see the monuments one too many times.

We started with just being honest about pets and then the people in our lives that we had lost and treating it as a normal part of life. So far, none of them has had an issue with it, but I remember being terrified that my parents would die when I was little. Sorry. No sage advice.

Posted by: MammaLoves at March 3, 2008 9:16 AM

Well, this is where being of some faith helps. When I got asked this question I gave the old, "When people die and go to Heaven to be with Jesus, this is where they put their body." When I got the "How come their bodies don't go too" I said, "Because people have spirits and don't need their earth bodies in Heaven". Unfortunately I had to have a more serious discussion with Amanda when she was 8 years old because of her sister's death.
Death isn't easy. I hope it is many years until Mia has to learn all about that.

Posted by: Maribeth at March 3, 2008 9:24 AM

When my eldest was about 2 she wanted to know what EVERYTHING was. We lived by a couple of really big cemetaries so naturally she asked what they were. At first, I told her that we put stones there to remember people who are not with us anymore. Then, of course, she wanted to know where they went. I told her, to Heaven.
A few weeks later she wanted to know if Jean (a friend of the family that recently passed) was in the park too. I told her that she was in a different one, but one just like that, but really she was in Heaven.
Gradually, the questions turned to me and my husband, if we were going to live in the park etc etc and I told her that we may, but not for a really long time.....
I say, be honest but just give the minimal information possible. They will ask if they want more info :)

(love your blog)


Posted by: Katie at March 3, 2008 9:55 AM

I am not sure how I will handle it with my kids but I know that when I was little, I used to have panic/anxiety attacks whenever I thought about death. Bad ones. It got better after this one time we drove by a big cemetery and my father asked why I was hiding on the floor of the car. When I told him I was scared he said, "Why? Don't be scared - everyone's dying to get in that place!" My dad, always a joker.

Posted by: Claire at March 3, 2008 10:02 AM

We had this same experience but no toddler follow up question either. I was shocked and my husband & I wiped our brow. However I guess I would just be honest (that is where we some people's bodies go when they die so the family can come visit them and that stone tells people about their lives... or something along those lines...) when it does come inevitably, one day soon.

Posted by: Christina at March 3, 2008 10:03 AM

Ouch a tough one. And on a Monday too.

I call cemeteries "bone farms"...but I don't think that'll help much with your explanation.
Maybe get Mia a goldfish and sit her down in front of the Lion King?

Or better yet pretend the moment never least until she's a little older and the goldfish has passed on....

Posted by: jessica at March 3, 2008 10:03 AM

ALSO...Mia's the right age for this...ask her if she remembers where she was before she was born.

A lot of very little kids will have an answer to this. It's a good bridge for the death question.

Posted by: jessica at March 3, 2008 10:08 AM

I've never been one to beat around the bush or use lots of flowery euphemisms. So for us, dead has always been dead. Everything living dies at some point. It's natural.
And in the particular case with the #@#$$^# deer that ran out in front of my car, we're glad it's dead. Because it destroyed my hood and both headlights.
But I digress. Bottom line, I try to never candy coat anything for my kids but give them straight facts and information.

Posted by: Traci at March 3, 2008 10:08 AM

I was spared questions about this until my kids were about 3.5 years old, only because they were always asleep when I went to the cemetary to visit my father.
I have since explained death to them although they can make me cry when they ask if bugs are with grandpa underground or do I miss him or will he come alive again.
I know they are jsut learnign though, but really it is tough. It doesn't get any easier.

Posted by: Tuesday at March 3, 2008 10:12 AM

Never bullshit a kid about anything important. They will find out and you'll lose credibility.

Saying "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer, especially with death and dying. None of us know. We believe that this or that will happen but so far no one has come back with proof.

It's also okay once she's older to say "many people believe" this and many people believe "that" and let her decide for herself. As you said, she's bright.

The girls believe that their Grandma Carol is in heaven along with the pets they've lost over the years and I'm okay with that. Cremation required a little more explanation of course but I stumbled through it somehow. I agree that we answer only the question that was asked and it sounds like that's what you did.

Posted by: ann adams at March 3, 2008 10:14 AM

This is one of the few posts where I read every comment. I need good ideas too.

I think there is a happy medium between "dead, gone, shriveled and rotting!", and "you get wings and fly around with Jesus".

Of them all, I think I like Julia's the best. The body grows old, and tired, and dies, just like flowers and trees and bugs. If things get hairy, I'll go further with the soul going to Heaven. I'm not a believer of Jesus' Heaven, but I think the idea of a soul at rest with its Gods is close enough to Heaven for me.

Posted by: Brad at March 3, 2008 10:21 AM

I think it's time for you to tuck "I'll get back to you on that" into your dialog with Mia. She's going to ask more tough questions you're not quite ready for, and rather than give her bullshit answers I think you owe it to her, yourself, and Beth to give yourself time to think of a good response that you're happy with rather than making something up on the fly. I understand that kids can be insistent, but I am pretty sure if you promise Mia you'll follow up with her soon she'll go onto her next question just like she did this time.

Posted by: Poppy at March 3, 2008 10:30 AM

I'd tell Mia that cemetaries are where people go when they die, unless they have cold, bitter hearts and then then stick around and haunt the people they hate the most. And if they're lucky, they get to be on Ghosthunters on SciFi, and that makes them immortal.

Posted by: GreenCanary at March 3, 2008 10:33 AM

Tell her straight up.

Levelling with little kids is hard, but not as hard as you think. At young ages I found that my kids were remarkably accepting of the hard truths of life. And you will never have to "keep your stories straight" if the stories are all truth.

Posted by: OddMix at March 3, 2008 10:35 AM

We have these cute little Veggie Tales kid videos that basically parody the Moses and Joseph stories from the Bible - in "western" style. If you grew up in a church setting, you probably remember that people (including babies) get killed in both stories. But in the VT version, they get "sent up the river" - literally. I thought that was an amusing way to candy-coat death for kids.
I don't remember struggling with death as a kid. I don't think my parents ever candy-coated it, it was just a fact of life. I think kids have a surprising capacity for accepting things as "facts of life" without being as bothered by them as we anticipate. Perhaps that's just because everything in the world is new to them and they are constantly being presented with new information to accept and file away.

Posted by: Amy at March 3, 2008 10:42 AM

I have zero help for you. This entire situation is one reason I never want to have children.

However, very pretty picture of a cemetery. Which is disturbing in and of itself.

Posted by: caleal at March 3, 2008 10:49 AM

Dude, you know I'm an evangelical Christian and I've answered this a million times for my kids. We can take it off line if you want to know what I would say.


Posted by: Edge at March 3, 2008 10:50 AM

Keeping The Religion out of that talk makes it even trickier, but I might try to explain things in the context of death being the second half of life; just another adventure in a different place. Not a bad or scary one, just different.

And you can simply say that cemeteries are where giant turtles hammer rocks into the ground in order to remind them where they places their shoes. It's confusing enough that it might keep her occupied while you set off a flare or toss something shiny at her.

Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' at March 3, 2008 10:59 AM

The first death I remember was that of my paternal grandfather's, when I was five. What saddens me is that my most vivid memory of him is the snapshot in my mind of him lying in his casket. I wasn't particularly traumatized, I simply wish I had a better memory of him. As an adult, I prefer to avoid funerals for that reason. I'd rather have my fond memories of my loved ones, than one of them in a casket. I typically dont go to funerals unless it's one I cannot get out of.. IE.. very close family members.

For those reasons, I do not take my children to funerals. I've had to explain death to my son [6] and he seems to understand. I basically kept it simple and let him ask the necessary questions. When my other grandfather died, I told him Grandpa Lloyd died. "Died?" was his response. I nodded yes. Apparently noticing, he asked if I was sad and I said yes.. that I was going to miss him a lot. My son asked if we would ever see him again and my response was that yes, we would see him someday with Jesus. It may sound "hokey", but that seemed to satisfy him. We didn't make a huge issue of it in front of him, so I think that helped. Several month's later, we went to do some work on his grave and took our son with us and.. amazingly he seemed to understand. It wasn't as difficult as I thought it was going to be.

My daughter is only 22 months, so we haven't had this discussion, but my plan is the same approach... for now. Each child is different, though, so it may well be a different experience. I do plan on keeping it pretty simple and letting her ask the questions she needs to ask, instead of over-explaining. I think every parent will be sensitive in explaining, so given that, I don't think there is a right or wrong way to go about it. I will say that we recently had to put our 19 year old cat down after she suffered a severe seizure. Again, he saw the sadness I was experiencing and he expressed some himself, but he did take the opportunity to remind me that Tia was probably with Grandpa Lloyd.

I seriously think he handles these things much better than I do! Time to get some kleenex now! lol Sorry for writing a book!!

Posted by: Suzy at March 3, 2008 11:18 AM

Tough questions, Chris.

The best advice I ever got was to just answer it simply, and answer the exact question asked. You saw right there that Mia wasn't looking for an explanation about death, religion, the afterlife, etc. She really wanted to know what it was called. Sometimes we think more deeply than we need to. :)

The day will come when you need to talk more about it. The answers come easier as they get older.

Posted by: Jon (was) in Michigan at March 3, 2008 11:22 AM

I was raised in a religious household, so the idea of death was fairly familiar, with Jesus biting the big one and all and the celebration of it (with chocolate!) every year. My mom told us matter of fact-ly, of course with the living in heaven with God and his buddies. Who were really him. But that's a topic for another day.

I had a great grandma and a grandpa, who I was quite close to, die before I was six. I don't remember it being traumatic, and we even viewed the bodies. (Even got into an argument with my cousin because she didn't believe me that they had glued her mouth closed. It was obvious.). When I was nine my dad died. Now, it's not that I didn't hurt and I didn't miss him like you wouldn't believe (still do), but because (I believe) of how my mom dealt with it, I didn't completely lose my shit like I've seen some close friends do. It was simply the cycle of things.

And I think I'll put a few more parenthesis here because there aren't nearly enough in this response.()()()()()

Posted by: rai at March 3, 2008 11:23 AM

Fortunately for me, I was raised a Buddhist (and still am a Buddhist). Us Buddhists don't beat around the bushes when it comes to talking about death. It's the Truth. Every living thing is born, grows old, gets sick and dies.

I didn't have issue about death. I mean, I don't have a grandpa (on dad's side) because he died before I was born. And that was the answer, he's dead, honey. But mom was also quick to point out that the rest of us are still here, even grandma, even without grandpa.

Oh, and having two older brothers who kept pointing out dead things to you ("Look at what happens to this snail when I put salt on it!") and having all sorts of critters that someone will have to smash with a shoe running around your house teach you about death real quick as well. LOL.

Posted by: oakley at March 3, 2008 11:27 AM

Go off the bug theory...but you can dodge the real question much longer than you think.

Sometimes ya know..before the bugs go to live with Jesus they need buried and sometimes people get buried before they go live with Jesus. You all can work out the details later or she will form her own conclusions! :-)

Posted by: Steff at March 3, 2008 11:29 AM

Funny -- my son Oliver (who is two and a half) and I drove past a cemetery today and he asked me what it was. He recognizes them, because my mother is dead and we go see her grave every once and a while, but he didn't understand what it was. I told him it was a cemetery, where people slept after they died, just like Gramma E.

I guess because my mum died just before I had my daughter, and because she has been asking questions about my mummy (where is she? what was she like? do I look like her? why did she die?) since she was about two, I just try to be as honest as I feel I can be with my kids. I think if my mom hadn't died before I had Julia I would answer their questions differently -- I think I might be more nervous about it, more hesitant.

Posted by: mamatulip at March 3, 2008 11:47 AM

When the clouds are pink we always say that angels are baking cookies. When a grandparent died, we explained that she was now one of the angels baking said cookies.

However. When we had another death that was closer to all of us, my daughter who was 5 at the time said to me, "Mom, I think that the angel thing is just something people make up to make themselves feel better."

Whoa. (And, yep.)

I replied that it did make me feel better and I was going to keep on believing that angels are baking cookies.

Posted by: sunshine at March 3, 2008 11:53 AM

What do you mean cemetaries aren't playgrounds?

Seriously, I'm not entirely sure how we're going to handle 'death' yet... low key, I suspect, trying to explain it's just a part of life. Death is the only one sure thing in life, really....

I suppose I should think about this some more.

Posted by: ewe_are_here at March 3, 2008 12:01 PM

I handled it the same way I handled the talk about blow jobs. I'll have to write about it some day. Thier reaction was "Umm, OK" and all was well. I've noticed that the more honest I am with them the more honesty I get back. Even when they're being turds like my son is now.

Posted by: Chantel at March 3, 2008 12:27 PM

Having just gone through this with Swimmy, I can say that the whole "faith" thing really helps. REALLY.

I'd also say to keep it simple and answer only the questions that are asked. Adults tend to fill in the conversation with info that the kids never really wanted to know about b/c we deal with death in a much more complex way than they do. Adults have issues with death, religion, etc. that kids do not.

She has a child's wonderous mind -- if you tell her what you believe (and believe it when you say it), she'll believe it too. She doesn't need to know what others believe right now - leave that for comparative religion/spirituality classes -- she needs to hear it from you.

The trick is, now, what is it that you believe -- and do you want her to believe it too?

Posted by: Pammer at March 3, 2008 1:05 PM

There's a really good kid's book called "A Story for Hippo" that's about death. I got it for our son when he was about 4 or 5, and it was perfect! (We'd just lost his great-grandparents.) It addresses death from a 'not quite so final' perspective without getting religious at all (which is nice, because I didn't want that aspect of it to be prevailing). But it talks about how the aspects of a person can live on through those people who love him. It helped get through the concept with our son, and he still will pull it out from time to time (he's 8 now) and just remind himself that it's not all doom and gloom.

Posted by: Sandi at March 3, 2008 1:05 PM

Hmm. Maybe try to explain the whole dualism deal, and tell her that's where our bodies go to rest while our souls are with Jesus? I don't know if she'll get that - I mean, clearly she's smart, but I'm not sure if that would be too much to try to grasp. I can't remember what my parents told me, and I have no idea what I'll tell my kids, either.

Posted by: Stephanie at March 3, 2008 2:02 PM

oh goodness.. i cannot even remember how my kids learned about that. i know i would not have had an answer on that one either.. you lucked out!

Posted by: Debbie at March 3, 2008 2:12 PM

In my family we are preparing for the death of my grandmother. She's 87. I explained to my 5 year old that we are all only givin a certain amount of time here and then when we die we get to start on a new journey. All of our loved ones who've died before us will be there when we get there and help us figure out what to do next. And, yes, our dog and cat will get to go there to.

Posted by: stephanie at March 3, 2008 2:32 PM

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story Of Life For All Ages

This book was an amazing big help when trying to explain why we lost 2 special people in our lives within a 2 week period. It is not religious, but it is gentle. Calming. Perfect for my 2 and 5 yr old.

We also handle death as part of everyday life. The flower that was so pretty yesterday she had to pick it....well, now it is longer alive. The hermit crab that she has been patiently waiting for it to finish molting, but one day suddenly longer alive. Held a crab burial and all (poor little critter is enclosed in an altoid tin). I have issues with death, big ones, and I don't want to pass that along to my kids. So we talk about it openly and frankly. Never giving tooooo much information, but never lying either.

Posted by: Jen at March 3, 2008 3:55 PM

That's a tough one. I think I'd try to keep it matter of fact, low key, and not scary. Death is pretty abstract for a two year old, right?

Posted by: bad penguin at March 3, 2008 5:52 PM

when my MIL was a hospice patient and lived with us during that time at the end we explained to our children who were 4 and 5 at the time that life was like running a race and when you win your race is when you go see GOD. that's how we explained death-like running a race to GOD. now the cemetery bit-well, we answered it honestly. that's all you can do...sometimes those questions aren't as hard as you make them.

Posted by: kimmyk at March 3, 2008 6:59 PM

I guess at two, I might have told her it was a park of some form. My niece asked me as we passed one yesterday and I told her the truth. I felt like six is old enough to understand. Plus my grandpa is on hospice, so I know the day is coming soon, where she'll have first hand experience.

Real life truths kinda grow on themselves. She may not ask questions now, but one day she will. Just answer it in a way you think she'll understand. But I'd lay off the jesus stuff unless you plan on going with it for good. It will just confuse her later, you know?

Posted by: Phoenix at March 3, 2008 9:27 PM

Oh, Jesus... I don't know??? My cousin used to tell her daughter that people died and became angels and she was really comfortable with that concept from an early age, but then again, her father died when she was about a year old so there wasn't a lot of avoiding the issue.

I might try something evasive, like "that' where people go when they get very, very old", which doesn't really answer the question.... Gosh, I don't know.

Posted by: Angela at March 3, 2008 10:12 PM

Well, I haven't any answers for you that you'd want to pass on to Mia (seeing how mine are all rather like the bug answer :P) but I think I'll definitely be doing some research into it by the time I have kids. Actually, I'll probably come upon it in my schooling too, since I'm doing child and youth mental health. So if I find anything brilliant, I'll let ya know. Otherwise just wanted to wish you the best of luck with a tough topic!

Posted by: Heather at March 3, 2008 10:19 PM

Very tough one. My own kids were sort of forced into knowing about death at a relatively young age (2.5) by the death of a family dog that was really more like a part of the family than a pet--but that is beside the point (hey, it is late and I'm tired). Anyway, we told them that he got very sick and his body could no longer heal and that he was gone forever and that he could exist in their thoughts, but his body would not be with us. I know, out of reach for that age, but they seem to really understand now, at almost five years old and having experienced another death--of a great grandmother.

Now, when they are older and they really start to question--that is when I will be at a total loss. I'm guessing that whatever you and Beth come up with will be ideal for Mia (and Owen) as you are their guiding force. But, I tend to think that we adults get more worked up about it than necessary, you know.

Posted by: Nanette at March 4, 2008 2:25 AM

When my father-in-law died there was a viewing before the funeral. My niece, then 5, asked me "If Grampa is in Heaven, how come is his body here?" She is going to Catholic school so it was easy to use what she has already learned. I told her that it's his spirit, which is the invisible part of us that makes us alive, that is in heaven. I went on to explain to her that when we are born, our spirit comes down from heaven and goes into the body and kinda drives it around like a car. Our bodies are what make our spirits able to live on Earth. When our bodies stop working the spirit goes out of the body and goes back to Heaven. I finished with "So, that's just his body there, his spirit is in Heaven." When her kindergarten teacher came by for the viewing, my niece told the teacher, "That's just his body" in a very matter-of-fact way. I was so proud. :o)

Posted by: Carrie Jo at March 4, 2008 9:44 PM

Unfortunately we dealt with that first hand when a former, but very well loved and still very much involved, teacher of Jake's passed away in January 2007. Then another one two months later, and his hamster a few months after that.

We were honest and told him what we believed-attended the school memorial, cried, and as a family paid tribute to them in our own way. It was very, very hard to see Jake in that kind of pain, but he was very resilient and surprised me.

Posted by: scatteredmom at March 7, 2008 11:30 PM