This morning my son’s preschool teacher shared something with me that he told her in the classroom.
He said, “You know something that’s so sad? My mom had a sister who died. She was riding her bike and she looked both ways, but there was a truck and a bad guy who had a mask and he just ran into her and she died, and now she’s an angel and she’s looking over all of us. She’s looking out for me.”
I am grateful that this woman took the time to capture his words and send me a message about the conversation. It both surprised and touched me that he is processing a difficult subject in a gentle and fairly accurate manner (minus the guy with the mask, this is basically what happened to my sister in June 2005).
From the time when he could ask “why”, Miles has been on a lifelong fact-finding mission.
Not only do I have to negotiate screen time, procure, promote and prepare an array of healthy food choices, support gross motor development through spontaneous soccer matches in the living room, and help my preschooler learn to read and write through home-made dot-to-dot and tracing games, now I have to help him figure out why on earth someone like his mama’s younger sister could possibly be dead.
And so I take a deep breath.
I talk openly and often to our boys about my youngest sister and her family who live across the country, but I infrequently talk about my middle sister. This could be because since she isn’t here to hold and play and be with them, and they’re too young to understand the complexity of an unexpected and senseless death. However, there is a framed photograph of my sister displayed prominently in the living room, and both boys are occasionally taken with it. They admire its sparkly frame and the pretty young woman in the colorful summer dress.
I remember the day the photo was snapped – it was during my bridal shower in my parents’ home. My sister was not yet married a year and eager for me to join her in married life.
Recently, Miles wanted more specific information about his aunt. Our conversation went something like this:
“Mama, this is Aunt Liz” (pointing to the photograph).
“Yes, she’s your Aunt Liz.”
“Not Aunt B. Aunt B’s not dead” (Miles used to get the two of them mixed up).
“Right. Aunt B is cousin Lexi’s mama and lives in Virginia.”
“Ok. Why did Aunt Liz die?”
“It was an accident.”
I pause. I really didn’t want to go there, and I’m not sure what’s age-appropriate at this point and the last thing I want to do is traumatize my child.
I respond, “It was very sad”.
Persistent, he demands to know: “But what happened?”
Finally, I say:
“She was riding her bike. She got in an accident.”
“You mean she didn’t look both ways?” he looked horrified.
“No, honey, I’m sure she looked both ways. It. Wasn’t. Her. Fault.”
He looked relieved to know that she had looked both ways before crossing the street.
“So what happened?”
Eventually I explained vaguely that there was an accident involving a truck, but quickly wrapped it up by saying that his Aunt Liz is a kind and loving spirit who watches over him, and isn’t that a very wonderful thing to know even though her accident was very sad. He seemed to get it, and was quiet for a few minutes before moving on to the next compelling thing which was to ask me to read him a superhero story or watch him make a map (maps and compasses are his current obsession).
It’s a very strange thing to talk openly about death in what feels like almost a cavalier manner. It’s unfamiliar to simplify and even reduce the impact of what in reality was and is such a life-changing and devastating event in order to preserve the innocence of a child. And yet, it also feels natural to talk about her absence by taking a non-threatening approach with my almost-five-year-old and responding to his questions.
I think the right thing to do is to respond to his curiosity in a tender, honest and loving manner rather than do what feels easiest which is to ignore it and change the subject. I believe that my sister would share this approach since she did not tend to be evasive around challenging topics (and that’s the truth). And by exploring tough subjects, we may discover something about our children that we may not know. If they have fears or worries or misconceptions, I think we should be open to finding those out and helping them navigate through those deep and muddy waters.
Readers, I welcome your thoughts on explaining difficult situations to your young children. Do you alter your language? Do you modify the experience? Or just tell the plain hard truth? Are they satisfied by a few honest words, or do they suspect there is more than what you’re letting on?
Does the story linger in your heart long after your child has left the room?
It does in mine.