Explaining Death To A Child

Where did the dog go?

Mercutio Mathews, RIP

My daughter was there when our dog died. I was holding his still warm body, tears in my eyes, when she toddled in. It was his time, but I wasn’t sure if she would understand. What she would understand. But she was just curious. She just wanted to come closer.

Death had no hold over her, not then. That’s changing.

When you grow up around animals you can’t avoid death. Dead mosquitos, dead flies, these don’t even register. Half frozen geckos falling out of the freezer, flicking off their still moving tails in fear, somewhat ordinary. Dead baby birds, being pushed out of their nest onto our balcony, almost seasonal. The neighborhood rabbits, chickens, ducks, goats, they all die. Death is everywhere, and nowhere, because it isn’t us.

Two of the baby ducks died, and she found them

Recently, however, she’s putting putting stuff together. That we’re animals, that some of us are old. Recently she’s been asking if we’ll die, if her great-grandparents will die. And what that means. It’s a tough one.

The easy answer is to tell her that dead people (and animals?) just go somewhere else, like heaven. But I don’t think this is true. From my readings, Christian/Muslim heaven is actually a time, not a place. Everyone waits around till Judgement Day, to be resurrected and, like, filed. But I’m not even Christian/Muslim, and I’m not prepared to discuss eschatology with someone I still have scatalogical debates with.

I’m a Buddhist, and as a Buddhist the usual answer would be rebirth, but I haven’t found this in my meditation and don’t believe in it. I come back as a dog, or a different type of human, depending on a complex karmic scorecard that I can’t even remember the beginning of?

This is why we’re not raising the kids as any religion, because narcotics should only be used by adults.

She’s still looking at me. I know the answers to everything and this should be an easy one, right? But I’ve never been there.

I think about our dog, where we buried him in the garden. He was a big fellow, I could barely lift him, half Alsatian half St. Bernard. It took three men to dig the grave, under the rathu mal tree. The flowers still fall on his grave.

So I tell her we return to the Earth. That we turn into soil and feed the plants and other small animals and, like, circle of life. That nothing is created or destroyed, we just go back. And this seems to make sense. I don’t tell her about how we get decomposed (worms eating Merky Bawwa?), or explain cremation (we lit my grandmother on fire?), but it’s good enough. Also not false, as far as I know. Life does go on, with our atoms, and with the memories of us, and the stuff we did.

Then she asks if I’m going to die. And her mother. Another tough one.

We tell her not for a long time, which sort of satisfies, but she still wants to know. Of course she wants to know. So I tell her.

Yes, we are going to die. I’m going to die. But a long ways in the future, when she’ll be an old woman with kids of her own, inshallah. We’ll return to the Earth, but as long as she remembers us we’ll be around.

Then she asks if she’ll be alone.

I think about it. Kids make you think about things at their most basic level, they’re little philosophers that way. And you can actually tell them the truth. We think the truth is complicated but that’s because we’re already so knee-deep in lies. If you’re starting from scratch the truth is simple.

Will she be alone? I try to visualize it. Right now her tree is all roots — us, grandparents, great-grandparents — but some day it will be all branches. I have to think about it, but, yes, the tree would just change. She would still have a tree.

So I tell her she’ll have her brother, and their kids. And all of their future cousins, and the family they marry into and create, if they want it. And that seems to makes sense as well. She loves her brother and they’ll always have each other. But I wonder if that’s enough.

But she seems to understand enough for now. She knows everything I know and she’s barely three now. Maybe that’s all there is. Maybe everything else is just fairy tales for adults.

Memorial for an imaginary rabbit

I brought it up myself and she still doesn’t really understand death, but who does? Maybe you can’t, maybe it’s just hard no matter what you do. We talked about it and I didn’t lie, so that’s a start. We’ll need to talk about it more, because it’s coming.

But her last question got me thinking. What happens after our parents die? Will we be alone? What happens when my wife and I die? Does our tree have enough branches, in this replacement generation? So I go and ask my wife.

Should we think about another kid?