Many years ago, when Claire was about 5, she was just starting to understand the concept of death. One day at school she learned from a friend that people can die of all sorts of diseases. This peaked her curiosity and she asked me about a dozen questions that night. “But how do people get sick in the first place? Why do some people get so sick they die? What happens when you die?”
I answered her questions the best I could. At the end of our conversation, she asked me one last question. “Mom, is it possible that a kid could get sick and die?”
I froze. I hadn’t thought about how to answer such a question, and so I did the worst thing I could have done. I lied. “Oh, no,” I said, “kids don’t die. So don’t worry about that. People only die when they are really, really old.”
I told my friends about my response later. They all understood why I had given such an answer. Of course I didn’t want to have such a terrible conversation with my child. Of course she was too young to understand. Of course I was just trying to protect her.
But why? Why did I feel the need to protect her from the understanding that life can be cruel? Why didn’t I just say – in age-appropriate terms – yes, kids can die, but it’s very rare and not something you need to worry about? Why didn’t I at least leave out the part about needing to be very, very old before you die?
Of course, my kids know about death now. We talk about it all the time, and though they are nervous about people around them dying (especially me) they are also matter-of-fact about the way the world works. Sometimes people die, even if they are young and healthy. It’s rare, but it happens.
A few months ago, my friend Caitlin was over with her son Nate, who is Tommy’s age. In the living room, Claire was playing with one of her friends, and they were talking about death. I don’t actually remember the conversation, but I do remember that they were talking plainly, and I wasn’t worried about their discussion. Nate and Tommy were quietly playing nearby.
“All these kids, they all have such a real understanding of what death means at such a young age,” Caitlin said to me.
“I know,” I said. “I bet if you had asked me a year ago when I thought I’d talk honestly with any of my kids about death, I would probably have said middle school.”
Obviously, we both wished that they didn’t have to know about death in such a real way. But that is their reality, and given that truth, we both agreed that we were glad they could talk about these terrible things with their eyes wide open.
That night, I thought about my conversation with Caitlin. I had been honest about death with my kids when I had to be. But, I knew that I was still shielding them from one other death – my mother’s.
It didn’t come up until the summer. I was sitting in my aunt Nancy’s house, reading stories to them at bedtime when Austin innocently asked, “how did Grandpa Tom’s wife die?”
Both Claire and Austin had different ideas about what had happened. I had been vague about her death and asked my dad to be vague as well. But I was tired of telling them that she had “died of a broken heart.” What did that mean anyway?
“Grandma Susan died because she got a disease in her brain,” I said.
“Like brain cancer?” Claire asked.
“No, not cancer,” I said. “She had something called depression.”
We spent another few minutes talking about what depression is – and isn’t – and I think they basically understood. But the concept of suicide was very difficult for them to understand. We talked about how “the disease depression” can get very bad for some people and make them want to hurt themselves, and that’s what happened to Grandma Susan. Ultimately, I told them, she killed herself.
They seemed to accept my explanation, though they all said very little. When we went to bed, Claire said to me in a very small voice, “it must have been very sad for Grandpa Tom when his wife died.”
“Yes, baby,” I said, holding back the tears. “It’s very hard when you lose someone you really love.”