Heather wrote yesterday about how Annie asked her some questions about death, and I thought she did a good job answering them. Perhaps naively, I assumed that Heather’s answers would satisfy Annie for a while, but as it turned out Annie was only getting started.
Annie is still in swim lessons, and yesterday Heather’s Mom, Linda, took Annie to her class. About twenty minutes after they left the house Linda texted to say that on the drive over Annie asked her “What happens when you die?” Linda told Annie that her parents would talk to her about it when she got home.
Annie has asked lots of questions about Maddie before, but she was never very persistent in seeking answers. She’d ask something like, “Where’s Maddie?” and when we replied, “In our hearts,” she’d nod and move on to talking about Play-Doh or Rapunzel. Lately, though, Annie’s mental development has progressed at a rapid pace, and easy answers clearly weren’t going to cut it anymore.
Even though I knew this day would come, I’d put off thinking too hard on what we would say to Annie because it’s such a hard subject even when you don’t have to explain the death of a child. Thankfully, Heather and I discussed this inevitability with Heather’s therapist in the past, so I pulled out some of the literature she’d given us and read it over. The gist seemed to be that it was best to give an answer that was truthful while remaining brief, simple, and literal. There were some examples on how to do that, as well.
Heather wasn’t home when Annie returned, and after a round of furious texting we decided that it would be best for me to answer the question if Annie brought it up, instead of putting it off again. Sure enough, Annie soon sat next to me and asked, “What happens when you die?”
“Well,” I said, trying to sound as calm and normal as possible. “When someone dies their body stops working. They don’t walk, they don’t talk, and we don’t see them any more.”
The literature suggested that with kids Annie’s age it was good to use animals as an example, so I did that.
“For example, when a doggie dies the doggie doesn’t bark or run around anymore, and we aren’t able to see the doggie anymore.”
Annie stared a minute, thinking.
“My sister Maddie died.”
“Yes, she did. Now she doesn’t walk or talk and we don’t see her anymore.”
“She still talks.”
Crap. The literature didn’t say anything about your kid saying something weird like that.
“Uh, well, uh…”
“What happens when toys die?”
The literature didn’t mention anything about toys dying either. Stupid literature.
“When toys die they stop working and you don’t see them anymore.”
Annie nodded and started thumbing through one of her picture books. She seemed satisfied with my answers, but she’ll have more questions in the days and years to come. I’m hoping these discussions will get easier for the both us.