Dear Mr. VP,
Have you ever explained death to a kid?
I assume you have, since you have three. Maybe you left it up to Karen, or maybe it was you, but I’m sure you didn’t avoid the conversation altogether. Kids are curious.
Several weeks ago, totally out of the blue, G asked me what dying means. I was temporarily jealous of religious folks, who have such a nice sounding answer. I bet it’s similar to the one you gave. “Well, you aren’t on this Earth anymore but if you’re a good person/follow these rules/accepted Jesus/are one of the elect/whatever it is we believe, you go to a fun place in the sky where you see all of your dearly departed family members and bounce around on clouds and maybe there’s an all you can eat ice cream sundae bar.” Doesn’t that sound so awesome and it scary at all?
But since I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven, and I think dead people just DIE and that’s it, I’m not comforted by any of that and it’s certainly not what I’m going to tell my kid. The idea of total nothingness and an absence of everything is pretty whacked out and trippy to me as a 32 year old. I can only imagine the response of a 3 year old.
That complicates the issue. How do I explain death in a scientific way that won’t terrify a three year old?
I got some practice those weeks ago, without feeling all that much pressure because there had been no immediate death in my family. G hasn’t even experienced the death of a pet. He asked me if everyone dies. I said yes. He asked what that meant. I said when someone dies, we don’t see them anymore and their bodies return back to the Earth and maybe particles that used to be us even go into space! Because doesn’t that sound kind of cool and not scary at all! And no, he shouldn’t worry about it because it’s not going to happen for a long time.
Apparently some of this stuck because he walked into the hallway at school that morning and without pretense said to his friend, “Everyone dies.” Good morning to you, too.
Fast forward three weeks and I’m struggling again with the reality that someone HAS died and I have to explain. No, we’re not going to see Grams again. On Thursday we’re going to see our family and celebrate her, but no, she won’t be there. Yes, maybe some of her will go into space. He ruminated on all this for about an hour then popped back with, “Mommy, you get old and then you die. Ok, I’ll never get old.”
The good news is I’ve gotten lots of practice answering three-year-old hard questions over the past year. These have been real questions. Never ask why I have the occasional beer after bedtime.
- Why did we move?
- Why don’t you and daddy live together?
- Why is a banana slug slimy?
- Why do we poop?
- Did Bernie win? Why not? *cries* (I cried too.)
- Did Hillary win? Why not? *cries* (I cried again.)
- Is Donald Trump still president? (This is the hardest because damn, I want to cry EVEN MORE.)
What I’m saying is, I’m jealous of your easy answers and simplistic world view. “The Bible says…” gives you an immediate and concrete answer.
But the more I think about it, the more I like my answer better. The idea that someday my atoms might disperse back into space is oddly comforting.
And Bill Bryson is really the ultimate comfort.