Friday, March 11, 2011

Questions kids ask about death

I wasn't sure what to say to Sabrina and Max about my dad's death; I didn't know what they would understand. So I kept it really simple.

I spoke with Sabrina first. "I'm sad today, honey," I said to her after dinner the other day. She wanted to know why. I told her Zadie had died.

"I feel bad," she said. And then, "What happens when you're dead?"

I told her it was like going to sleep and never waking up.

"Where is Zadie now?" she asked.

I said he was in a special place.

"Oh, I know where that place is," she said. "They put you in the ground."

I was kind of floored—I had no idea how she knew that.

"Why did he die?" she asked.

I told her his body wasn't working very well anymore, and that seemed to satisfy her.

Over the last few days, she's had lots more questions:

"Every year Zadie's going to be dead?"

"Lots of years he's going to be dead?"

"In a thousand years he'll still be dead?"

"Is everyone in New Jersey going to die?"

"How did he know he was dead?"

"Will everyone be dead in 1000 years?"

And the hardest question of all:

"How are you going to say goodbye?"

People say that the death of a parent often makes you think about your own mortality, but I hadn't considered that until the conversations with Sabrina. The one question she hasn't asked is whether I will someday die, though I know that's bubbling in her brain.

I told Max that Zadie had died and showed him photos. "He's not coming back," I said. Max just shook his head at me. I will try to keep explaining.

Hanging with the kids and hugging them incessantly has made this time easier, as have all the friends and family who have come by. Reading messages here and on Facebook have been comforting, too. Today, friends brought dinner and included spaghetti for Max, chopped up the way he can eat it; I was so touched. I have talked about my dad a lot, shared memories, and eaten my body weight in bakery cookies (my own death is probably the only thing that will ever suppress my appetite).

I veer back and forth. One minute, I am doing OK. The next minute, I am Googling how long it takes for a body to decompose in a grave (about a year), and wishing it were possible to open the casket and see my dad one more time.

Nighttime is hard. I lie in bed and picture my dad's apartment, dark and empty. I think of the rain falling on his grave and hope he's not wet and cold, even though I know full well he can no longer feel. I think back again and again to the last time I visited and try to remember whether I somehow sensed that it was the final time I'd ever see him.

"Which books shall we read to remember Zadie?" I asked Sabrina at bedtime tonight. She suggested Pinkalicious and Amelia Bedelia, which is exactly what you get when ask a 6-year-old for meaningful book suggestions. Then she fell asleep early in Max's bed, snuggled up beside her cousin Margo, who's 18 months old.

I snuck in and watched the two of them sleeping, their little chests rising and falling with every breath, their faces so sweet. And I felt some peace.

Photo/Bahman Farzad


  1. Your lives are forever enriched for having had Zadie in your lives. Sending you comfort and healing thoughts your way as you navigate this part of your journey.

  2. Day by day. I don't know if you ever "get over it," but time does make it easier to bear.

    Take time for yourself.

  3. Try the books "When Dinosaurs Die" and "Tear Soup." They're recommended lots by Child Life Specialists. You may want to revisit "his body wasn't working well," because, well, Max's body doesn't work well either in a sense and what if she's now afraid Max is going to die, and is also too afraid to ask? You might want to clear that one up.

    (((HUGS))) I'm glad at least that the community is helping.

  4. Yes. I understand, especially the part about going back and forth, up and down, within grief. That lasts a while.

    "the loss is not yours alone, she said, & you will see it in their eyes when they do not think you are watching. How long does it take? I said & she put her hand on my chest & we did not speak" -story people, brian andreas.

    And, a quick sweet story about kids and death. My mom died before we adopted my son James. I've always told James about my mom. One day, when he was like 3 years old, I was telling him some story about her. He interrupted me and said (in a typical 3 year old matter of fact way): "But she's dead now." To which, I replied, "She is" with tears in my eyes. And then he put his little hand up on my cheek and said, "But now you have me." :)

  5. that must be so hard. I don't believe in life after death or in god but I wish I did to make times like this easier. hopefully you have a way or a belief to help you find peace. julie lewin.

  6. it amazes me how sometimes kids just *get* something...

    I had to explain death to my autistic son when he was about 5. We had 2-3 deaths in the family in like 4-6 weeks, and went to the funerals. I had read that you shouldn't tell them the person is sleeping so they don't worry about dying in their sleep. My son was very much into cars, so I explained that there were parts of the person's body that worn out beyond repair, and the doctor couldn't find the right replacement parts. The casket was the "elevator to heaven". He seemed to accept everything OK.

    My 5 year old didn't ever need me to explain death. One summer day our cats played with a mole in our back yard until the poor thing finally died. Clay walked up and said something about it sleeping, and I chuckled and said "uh...I don't think it is sleeping honey..." to which my (then) 3 year old replied "yup. It is dead"

    the pain of loss will always be there to some extent, but in time your memories will make you smile instead of cry. My grandparents have been gone for 8-10 years now, and I am not sure I have ever been able to cry over their loss. The last few years I have felt close to my grandfather when I eat mangoes--he was very into *rare* fruits and stuff like that and showed us how to cut one about 25 years ago. Last summer I felt SO close to him as I was introducing friends to fresh mango, juice running down my arm....mmmm

  7. So sorry for your loss, Ellen. Keeping you and your family in my thoughts.
    My father - in - law, Monkey's beloved Grampy, died shortly before Monkey turned three. I too struggled to explain to him what had happened. It's amazing how much children are able to understand, though.
    As Felicia said, make sure you take some time for yourself.

  8. Thinking of you . . . and hoping your kids' sweet smiles keeps healing the hurt in your heart.

  9. you are so on point. My father passed away 3 1/2 yrs ago at age 66. Each time I visit the grave I have the urge to uncover the grave and open the casket. I still think of calling him or what he'd say when something happens. You are lucky to have this outlet.

  10. Our Max (who is now 4) still asks questions about his sister's death (she was stillborn almost 18 months ago). The hardest one came recently: "Mom, will I die?"

    Last week, my friend (who also has a stillborn child) sent me this quote about grief and I thought of you: "You don't get over it, you just get through it. You don't get by it, because you can't get around it. It doesn't get better, it just gets different. Every day...Grief puts on a new face."

    I am so sorry for the loss of your father.

  11. I am so sorry for your loss. Sending you and your family much love

  12. Your post was touching and your readers comments very sweet and helpful, I will make note of these ideas in case I need them soon for my own parents. Hugs to you, Ellen.

  13. so sorry for your loss! Sending thoughts and prayers your way.

  14. I'm so so very sorry for your loss. I lost my dad 6 years ago.

  15. Just a word of advice. When someone dies you shouldn't tell a child that it's like that person went to sleep and never woke up because often a child will develop a fear of bedtime and falling asleep.


Thanks for sharing!

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