We take a very matter-of-fact approach to talking to our children about life and its many intricacies. Our basic stance is this: children deserve to have their questions answered truthfully, and they also deserve to be trusted with the truth even when they haven't raised questions. The facts of life are, well, facts, and children should not be sheltered from them.
While the facts usually remain the same, sometimes the context in which they come up is unexpected. I had shared the following conversation with my mom, and she asked me to tell it to my dad and a few relatives at lunch following Pop-Pop's funeral, and I thought I would retell it here, as well.
Griff and I were on our way to the preschool one morning a couple of weeks ago, when out of the blue, Griffin said "I hope that T-Pop feels better soon."
"T-Pop is very, very, very sick," I replied. "I don't think that he will feel better. His body is dying."
"And then, no more T-Pop?" Griff asked.
"No, no more T-Pop. His body will be all done living. We can still remember him, and tell stories about him, and look at pictures of him, and do some of the things that he did, but we won't see him any more."
Griff likes to find solutions to problems, and quickly found one for this situation: Great-Grandma could have a baby, "and that baby will be the new T-Pop." I mentally calculated how far we were from the preschool (about two minutes' drive) and how best to handle deep matters in such a short time. Where to start?
"Well, that's an interesting solution. But only women who are mommy's age can make babies. When their bodies get older, they stop being able to make babies. Great-Grandma's body is all done making babies, she can't have a new baby..."
Before I could continue, he piped up with "maybe our new baby can be the new T-Pop!" Great suggestion, kid, but no, our new baby cannot be the new T-Pop. I explained that our new baby will be a brand-new person that we've never met before. There is only one really real T-Pop, just like there is only one Griffin and only one Me. We're all unique. We can't make a new one.
Undaunted, Griff came back with, "Well, then I'll make a ROBOT T-Pop."
Uh-huh. I'm just not sure what you SAY to that. Um, okay? I can't tell him that he can't build a robot, or that it can't be like a person. Maybe he can! I did ask, "do you think Great-Grandma will know it's not the real T-Pop?" and he assured me that nope, nobody would know the difference. I did comment that I thought maybe Great-Grandma would figure it out, but hey, Robot T-Pop. Wow.
He lapsed into silence, which I took to indicate his contemplation of the solemnity and permanence of death. "What are you thinking about, Griff?" I asked.
"I'm thinking about what parts I need," he answered.
Well, then. And to think that I was worried about him being upset by death. We parents worry about talking about dying and where babies come from, and all the while, our little ones are busy mentally planning blueprints for robots.
I'm reminded of the Erik Erikson quote, "Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death." So far I find that to be true of Griffin.
He had some questions on the day of the funeral about the coffin, and T-Pop's body. He went into the funeral parlor with my sister and did not see his body in the coffin, and later asked to see him (during the funeral, when it was too late), and I wish that I had been the one to take him in at the time (I was dealing with a coughing attack, I've been horridly sick for two weeks) so that I could have been there with him if he had wanted to see T-Pop at the time. He has asked several times since then about burial, and Caitlin and I have both talked frankly about that and about what happens to bodies (using composting as an example of decay that's familiar to him). I think the concept of the permanence of death is still beyond him, and maybe he expects to see T-Pop again some time. We would only see him a couple of times a year, so his being deceased lacks concrete meaning to Griff.
Interestingly, Griff's own ability to take new information in stride has been helpful to me. I thought it would be more the other way around - the adult comforting the child and teaching the child. Instead, his desire for facts and open discussion has helped me to process my own thoughts and feelings of mourning. You'd think I'd expect the unexpected by now, but it's always a surprise.