Recently I made the poor decision to tell my 4-year-old niece Kaylee that my family “used to have a dog named Nina.”
I could see her squint, her wheels turning, and she simply asked, “Used … to …?”
My sister calmly responded, “Yes, Kaylee, Nina died.”
At that point she was trying to help Kaylee understand death. Her dad’s grandma had just died, giving Kaylee the impression that death means you go into a “jewelry box” in the ground.
Kaylee thought for a minute and then responded with the most heartbreaking question I’ve ever heard.
“Mommy, is death just for grown-ups or can children die too?”
“It’s mostly for grown-ups, but some kids have problems and do die,” she responded. My sister is the type of person who will cry just watching an Olympic gold-medal winner hug their mom, but she must have known that getting upset right then would only freak out her daughter.
Kaylee’s eyes got huge and she whimpered, “I don’t wanna die!”
At that point I felt truly sorry I even mentioned the dog. What had I started?
It got me trying to remember when I had first discovered that everybody dies. I couldn’t pinpoint a specific moment, just that I seemed to have always known this. Maybe the Lion King’s “circle of life” concept hones it in for you at 4, or depressing childrens’ stories about fat kids getting baked in ovens deliver the grim diagnoses. Either way, it had always been fact, and not one that troubled me too much when I was young. Maybe because, like my sister told Kaylee, “That’s far off, don’t worry.”
2 of my grandparents died when I was young, and at the time it felt like another Catholic rite. It was a time to stand in a church, feeling solemn. Having your grandparents die is probably most people’s first encounters with death, but it’s usually one lacking anger, since most grandparents live a full life and get to die old.
I remember when my dad’s dad died, he checked out a book from the library with a name like “Dealing with The Loss of a Parent.” I felt troubled by that book, like there was something my dad was going through that he was powerless over, and that I didn’t understand. I suspected that there were many valences of death, and the ones closest to you devastate you, and make you turn to how-to books.
When I was 12, my best friend’s mom died of lupus. She’d been struggling with it for years, and the death did not sneak up on us. My friend was only 10, and I was absolutely puzzled by her reaction. At the funeral reception, she challenged herself to eat as many meatballs as she could. It wasn’t like normal sadness, but manic nonchalance that I felt obligated to psychoanalyze and redirect. I remember compelling her to cry one day months later, because movies had made me feel that crying was some kind of breakthrough. The reality was, I didn’t understand what she was going through, and it made me feel guilty. I still do feel guilty, just for having an easier life than someone I loved.
That was the first time I realized that dealing with death isn’t just about sadness and loss, it’s about questioning the fairness of the universe. There are all kinds of death, and when a young mother dies is it’s a lot less fair. I still feel like I “got away with” a normal childhood, because there’s no explanation for why that happens to some families and not others.
I think we like traumatic plotlines on TV because we get addicted to watching people under-react to what terrifies us most. It’s reassuring to watch someone encounter death and then head to the cafe for a piece of pie, because we know the reality is much more complicated. I don’t think you’re ever too young to understand death, but the luckiest of us get our whole lives to prepare for it.