How do you talk to your children about death?
The only time we've had to really touch on the subject was when our dog, Ginger, died. It was unexpected. It was the middle of the night. We went to sleep and she was fine and when the kids woke up... she was gone. Her stomach flipped and I rushed her to the emergency vet and the most humane option we had was to put her to sleep.
Teagan quickly understood what we explained- Ginger's body stopped working. We wouldn't see her anymore.
Teagan understood it more than we realized. As the months went by, she would bring Ginger up from time to time. 2 years later, she still comments on Ginger when she sees a dog similar in appearance. About a year after Ginger's passing, Teagan burst into tears in the car and, when asked why she was sad, she said she missed Ginger.
For about 2 months or so now, Teagan has been asking about Mommy dying. "When are you going to die?" "I don't want you to die." "When you die, I will miss you forever."
I have no clue where it is coming from.
I kept my involvement with the Graddy family very separated from home and conversation over the summer. I talked about it one time- she and I dropped off a meal at their home and when Teagan asked why we were doing that, I told her that their Mommy had died and lots of other mommies were doing things to help them now. She asked no questions. Had no emotional response.
But for these last few months... tender moments... when she feels loved and cared for in a special way by me... that tenderness opens up that painful, dark place and she becomes worried, scared, concerned.
Wednesday night, it was the worst response yet.
She and I are laying on her bed, the only light coming from her nightlight. We are talking and enjoying each other's company. Tell me about your day, about dancing, about school, about work, about lunch. Then she turned to me, threw an arm around my neck and started in on the death talk.
I gave the same responses we always give. And I'm feeling like I'm not finding the right answers. I can't promise that we will never die. I can't make myself lie to her that deeply. My words tend to be, "Mommy isn't dying. I'm here and with you and happy. Let's be happy that we are together and enjoying each other right now! We don't need to be sad when Mommy isn't dying!" Or sometimes I try a more validating approach, "I would be very sad, too. But you would still have so many people who love you and who take care of you."
We talk a little about God and heaven- but I don't want there to be too much confusion on that subject. I don't want her to think that there is a physical place where dead people go and continue to live without their loved ones. We touch on the subject but I'm not ready to get that deeply metaphysical with her just yet.
But last night... she was expressing deep concern about what would happen to her and Zach if Mommy and Daddy died.
So I explained it. Aunt Christy would take care of her and Zach. Plus, there would still be so many other grown ups that love them and would care for them- Grandma, Grandpa, Mimi, Pop-pop, Pastor Jennifer, Miss Lori and her teachers, Miss Lisa and so on.
She went deeper still. "I don't want to not live in my house." "Aunt Christy doesn't know about my school and where to take Zach!"
So I explained the plan. Aunt Christy would move in to our house. Aunt Christy is often present for taking to school and for picking up from school. Aunt Christy is often there to pick up Zach from daycare and knows where Lisa lives and Lisa knows Aunt Christy. Aunt Christy would take Teagan and Zach to church every Sunday. Aunt Christy would have Grandma and Grandpa and Mimi and Pop-pop and everyone else coming to visit and continue to love her and Zach.
She wasn't convinced or calmed.
I offered to call Christy. No answer. So I called Grandma. As I explained to Teagan, Grandma is well informed on our intentions. And Grandma at least got the crying stopped with what she said to Teagan.
Jeff laid with her while she fell asleep.
But I'm feeling lost and confused and I don't know what to say or what to do. She does have the type of personality that I can easily see her carrying this below the surface, a stress point. I've felt that way so many times- love is so very close to fear and intense love brings fear into realms of reality that I was previously ignorant of...
Death is a part of living. I don't fear death. Yes, I get sad when people die- but it is sadness for those left behind, for the void that can't be filled. But my faith is very strong when it comes to death. I very much know that God is there, God mourns with us, and God carries us home. Even a horrible death ends in peace.
But how do you relay any of that to an almost 5-year-old without scaring and scarring her?
And what on earth do I do when she figures out that Aunt Christy's mortality is just as at risk as ours?