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How to Talk to Your Kids About Death

I’ve been writing this week about inspired vision and embracing radical change even in the face of the death of present systems. But the experience is different when applying the same principles to our own lives. The following is taken from my upcoming memoir, PregMANcy, due out in a few weeks. The setting is about four years ago, when my son, Mattias, decided his latest obsession would be death.


I’ve noticed that Mattias has been more fearful in general lately, which concerns me. Part of it, I think, has to do simply with the fact that he’s smart enough to think through possible scenarios. As I’ve observed with him a number of times before in the last two years, he’s able to process a whole lot more intellectually than he can process emotionally. Eventually, his emotional wisdom should have plenty of opportunity to catch up, but for a four-year-old, any gap in development is more pronounced.

Two years ago, when he was only a year and a half old, Mattias was jumping from the side of the pool into my arms and going underwater. Last summer, he and his cousin spent most of every waking hour in their grandmothers’ pool, diving to the bottom for toys and to do tricks. Now, with floaties on both arms, a mask and a snorkel, it’s all I can to do get him off of the top step in the shallow end.

What the hell happened?

I think it has something to do with all of the questions about death he’s been asking lately. He asks about when he’s going to die, when his mom and I will die, what happens to our bodies, and since we’re spiritual folks, where our souls go. Is God waiting for us somewhere else? Why do we have to die? How long will we live, and when we die, will worms eat our brains?

Then we got down to the good stuff.

“Daddy,” he asked, “if you and mommy die, do I have to go live somewhere else?” I explained, in as much of a matter-of-fact tone as I could muster, that he would live with me if mommy died, and with her if I died, but that it wasn’t something he had to spend any energy worrying about. But he wanted to know what the plan was if we both got whacked at the same time. I told him he’d live with his grandparents in New Mexico, which only led him to wonder where he’d go if they died. This went on and on through the familial chain until there were few, if any of us left. I couldn’t help but picture the apocalyptic scene, with all of the Piatts, Pumphreys, Robinsons, Brendles and so on all laid out in coffins side by side, with my little guy looking worriedly on.

Not a pleasant scene, but what are you going to do when your kid brings it up? I felt like I owed him an answer: to a point, at least. By the time he had about a dozen and a half of us knocked off in his imagination, I told him that was about as far down the line as we’d planned, but that he was incredibly lucky since he had so many family members and friends who wouldn’t hesitate to love him and take care of him in our absence.

Now Mattias’ latest plan is not to have any more birthdays. He’s decided that the cake, presents and all of the attention are heavily outweighed by the grim reaper, leaning in over his shoulder. I admire his resolve to hold off the inevitable by ignoring cultural landmarks like birthdays, but I haven’t had the heart to tell him he’s still going to die someday, whether he ever puts on another pointy party hat or not.

It sucks, though, watching him struggle with the realities of life, which also include the eventual absence of all we now love and treasure, especially at such a young age. It seems like a bit of a cruel joke we’ve played on him, bringing him into a world we knew had such glaring flaws.

Here, kid. Have a nice life. Embrace it all, and live like there’s no tomorrow, because someday, there will be no tomorrow. It might be today, and it might be a hundred years from now, and you’ll never know until it’s right on top of you. But don’t let everything getting taken away from you stop you from foolishly throwing yourself into this fickle, fragile existence that someday will turn on your and convert you and all you love to compost. Muah, hah, haaaah!!!

We all suffer from a terminal condition called life. It’s unavoidable, and in some ways, bringing another life into a world bound by the rules of death seems unfair. Imagine the doctor who delivered you standing over your first crib, shaking his head. “I’m afraid she’s going to die,” he says, “and it’s not something she’s going to be able to recover from, ever.”

Bummer, right? That’s kind of how I feel about it right now, getting all of these questions about death from my four-year-old while waiting on the arrival of another little victim. I know, I’m being morbid and overly dark, but the only other option, at least for me, is not to deal with death at all, which is about the most brazen form of denial I can think of.

Unfortunately, it took me a long time to come to terms with death, as it wasn’t something we dealt with very much in my house growing up. I remember breaking down at the dinner table while opening presents on my thirteenth birthday, effectively turning a celebration into a wake for my childhood. It also didn’t help that, during my grade-school years, I had youth leaders in church who bluntly informed me that my dad would not be joining us in the big party in the sky when he kicked the bucket. Thanks for that one, folks.

There’s a line from a song that’s been one of my favorites for a number of years, performed by a band called Semisonic. They sing, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” The crappy part is that we have to end the old things sometimes before we can get started on the new ones. It’s sort of like wanting a cookie we can’t see inside of a jar, but not wanting to lay down the carrot we have in our hand to be able to reach in and see what we get. Who, after all, wants to let go of the certainty of the carrot for the possibility of a cookie?

It’s ironic that we have to accept as fully as we can our own death to truly live, but that’s part of the poetry of life. Life is a constant series of little, tiny births and deaths; we die to life in the womb and are reborn into the world; we die to childhood and emerge as adults; we die to our fears and awaken to the hope and promise of a life unbound by that same fear. Life is still a gift, no matter how long it lasts. We can’t assess the validity a life strictly based on tenure. Instead, we have the chance to celebrate each person’s involvement in an ongoing, miraculous event, of which we are a startlingly small part.

Eventually, our cards will all be punched, and even the most “important” of us will be forgotten. It’s really only a matter of time. For some, they will become no more than faces in a scrapbook within a few decades. For others, it may be hundreds of years before they become more historic myth than fact.

The point, it seems to me, is not to compete for the biggest imprint on the collective memory of history, but rather to live as fully as possible into one day only: today. There’s a great moment in the movie Kung Fu Panda when the old, toothless turtle offers a bit of wisdom to his protégé, who is feeling like his life has not added up to what it should have.

“Yesterday is history,” he says, “and tomorrow is a mystery. All we have is today, which is a precious gift. That’s why it’s called ‘the present.’”

Okay, I just threw up in my mouth a little after typing that, but cliché or not, I wish I’d thought of it first. Guess that’s why I haven’t gotten the call to write dialogue for any talking cartoon animals yet. Any day now though, I bet.

Meanwhile, I’ll be here, the man I need to be at least for today, just living the dream.


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