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.
Becca Masters says:
Oooof. The topic still baffles me, I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it is explaining it to a small child.
I’m quite intrigued by Annie saying “she still talks” if I’m honest.
Part of me wonders if she’s created a part of Maddie in her imagination to play with and speak to. If so then that’s so incredibly sweet.
I think you and Heather are doing a great job with Annie. Grandparents that I was very close to passed away when I was young and my mother had a terminal illness, and my family just didn’t talk about it. I don’t know if I asked any questions, but most likely the fact that everyone just stopped talking about grandma and grandpa, and later mom, made me feel like I couldn’t/shouldn’t ask questions. So what you guys are doing with Annie, sharing her sister with her, talking about Maddie, and answering her questions at her pace, is really wonderful.
The first thing I thought of when you said Annie told you Maddie still talks, is that maybe she’s talking about videos she’s seen of her?
You did a GREAT job Mike especially since losing Maddie is such a difficult subject to broach! There are also a lot of kid books on that topic. My children received a beautiful book when their Grampy passed away & I can tell you without a doubt it really settled them. Just something for you & Heather to consider. Take Care Mike & All the best!!
My friends lost their 12 year old son in a skiing accident a few years ago. Explaining it to their 8 and 3 year old children was tricky. They were religious, so the 8 year old had some understanding of heaven but the 3 year old, not so much.
I think they explained it beautifully in the end. I can’t remember exactly how it was explained, but this was the basic premise. The explained that when you are born, you are born needing to learn from and teach to your family and friends a certain number things. Most people take many, many years to do all of their learning and teaching. Most people don;t learn all of their lessons until they are almost 100. The lessons are usually about love, compassion, understanding, happiness and sadness, treating each other with kindness and being treated the same in return. Sometime people learn and teach their lessons very quickly, and those are the people we loved very much who leave very early. Their heart stops beating and their body stops working and their love goes in to our hearts to help us with our lessons and their souls go back to heaven. She seemed to grasp it, and it opened the door for more detailed explanations. For example, toys are not born, toys are made. Making those toys helped the toy maker with their own learning. The toys made others happy and it makes the toy maker joyful to make others smile. Pets love and are loved so easily, their lessons are shorter.
For what it’s worth, it sounds like you two are doing everything you can to explain it well to Annie. It can’t be easy, especially with the early losses of Maddie and Jackie. My heart and my kudos are with you.
So difficult. I’m so sorry you guys have to go through any of this. But I think you’re doing wonderfully!
I grew up in Annie’s position; my older sister died before I was born. So if I could offer any advice from Annie’s perspective, it would be to keep answering her questions.
I’d also add that it’s important to remember that Annie’s sense of loss is very, very different from yours; she never knew Maddie. And she’s only ever known a world without Maddie.
When I was really young, I “inherited” my parents’ feelings of sadness and loss. Then, around 6 or 7, I realized that I had a sense of loss that was different from my parents. My sense of loss is centered around what could have been — how I missed out on the experience of knowing and having an older sister; how my life would have been different; how *I* would have been different; how my parents would have been different.
There’s also sadness toward my parents, especially my mum — it hurts me that they hurt so much. It’s a very powerful element of the equation, as it’s something I saw daily.
The best way I can describe the differential in what you experience vs. what Annie may experience is to liken it to the difference in the sense of loss you feel about a grandparent you knew vs. a grandparent who died before you were born. Both result in a powerful sense of loss, but the dynamics are a bit different.
For a long time, my mum assumed that my sense of loss was the same as hers. I felt guilty that I didn’t feel the exact same way. I felt like my feelings about my sister were “wrong,” like I *ought* to feel this more acute loss that my parents felt.
So if I had any advice, it would be this: I would encourage you to talk to Annie about her feelings and legitimize her feelings about Maddie. (Perhaps more so in the future when she’s older). Her feelings about Maddie will be different from yours and she needs to understand that that’s okay.
And keep fielding those difficult questions! So important, yet so heartbreaking, I”m sure.
My brother passed away the year before I was born. You pretty much summed up feelings exactly.
I remember asking my dad about it, but I was 5. He told me the same thing you told Annabel. There was an explosion at a rubber plant where we lived. We walked down near the destroyed part of town. People died and I asked how they were. He said, ” When people die, they don’t feel pain anymore and they don’t know they’re not here for us to see. I remember thinking and thinking he must be wrong and I went home and said a prayer out loud at bedtime after we said our “Now I lay me…” Ya done good.
Mike, you guys are going at Annie’s pace and doing a great job. I’m a hospice nurse and we have a book called the dragonfly story. It really helps children (and some adults) to understand something that is so hard to comprehend when it’s happening. Here’s a link to the story http://www.idhal.com/foc/dragonfly.html
“Lifetimes” is also a book worth checking into. The idea is somewhat clinical, insofar as explaining that everything is born, lives, and dies, and that span is different for everybody. I’d check it out as a parent first, and see if any parts of it might help with the questions.
I think you guys are doing an awesome job and answer Annie’s questions perfectly for her age. I don’t know much about it, but from what I’ve heard, it’s like you said: give honest, simple answers and do not answer more than what they’ve asked/need to know. You guys are doing a great job and I think Annie will be a very well adjusted child.
I’m wondering if part of these questions are coming from her need to understand why her sister is not here, but her brother is? Perhaps she is trying to figure out if James will “go away” like Maddie did, or even if SHE will “go away” like her big sister did, now that SHE is the big sister?
I agree with TwinCitiesLynn… I have 2 older brothers, but one was born with heart & lung problems & never came home from the hospital (died when he was 6 months old). He was born when my oldest brother was 4. I was born when my oldest brother was 5. My parents said he really struggled with it because I came home from the hospital. but Jerome didn’t, was it because I was a girl & he wasn’t? If that was the reason, maybe they didn’t want my older brother either… pretty big questions from a 5 yo. I think you are doing a great job, with all of your kids. =)
My husband and I struggle with talking to our now almost 6 year old twins about death. Their older brother died before they were born by they were 2 1/2 when their younger brother died. We have been given a few books. The one that seems to work best (at the moment) is Waterbugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney. The cliff notes version is that a group of Waterbugs notice that every once in awhile one of them goes to the surface of the water and does not come back. The Waterbugs all agree that when it is their turn to go to the surface of the water they will come back and tell the others all about it. One day when it is the littlest waterbugs time to become a dragonfly and leave the water he realizes he can no longer go back into the water to tell his family and friends.
I think at every age (and stage) I will be trying to explain to the twins the meaning of death.
Thank you and Heather for your posts about explaining death to Annie. Sending you all hope and hugs.
My Dad passed away last year. He and my son were the best of friends, you couldn’t pry the two apart. My son still wakes up crying and asks extremely difficult questions, the worst to date is what will happen to him and the baby, if we (my husband and I) die? The counselor said be truthful, but keep it simple. Still waiting for the questions to get easier.
You did and are doing a wonderful job, I think.
I wonder if “she still talks” just refers to the videos of Madeline. I think you’ve both mentioned that you occasionally watch videos of Maddie with Annie.
Annabel us a pretty smart girl, and my guess is that you are going to be having this question A LOT until she’s fully worked through it in her mind, – ESPECIALLY since Maddie was and is a part of your family, and she’s going to want to understand “where” Maddie is. My 4 year old has been, I don’t want to say pre-occupied, but working through the idea of death, and he just seems to ask about it all the time. You should also be prepared for her to ask, “Am I going to die?” and “Are you going to die?” and “when am I going to die?” And of course my favorite, “I don’t want to die, mom.” ACK. Coming up with satisfying, accurate, child-appropriate non-scary answers is really hard, and it really stresses me out, but it’s good to help them understand and not feel afraid or like it’s a taboo topic.
I’ve been explaining to my son that most people die when they are really old (it feels like lies, but it’s mostly true), and one day, he was totally distraught because grandma was going to die soon. I said “grandma is not going to die soon, baby! Grandma is not very old, why do you think she is going die?” And he was like, “Because she’s too old to go in the bounce house!”
It also might help to explain (in child-friendly terms, of course) why Maddie died and went away – I think she’s probably old enough to understand that Maddie came out of her mommy’s tummy before she was ready, and that made her sick and not able to breathe very well. I agree with the earlier poster that she might be worried that she or James will also “go away.”
Not everyone shares my belief system that we can talk with souls who have crossed over (or not yet come here), but it is possible that Annie and Maddie actually have been talking. My son has been talking to, or playing “pretend” as some might call it, his sister since he could talk. She wasn’t conceived until five months ago. Just food for thought–I think you guys are doing a great job!
Thank you, Tara… I was thinking along the same lines. I definitely believe that people (especially children) can see and/or interact with souls who have passed, and there’s nothing “dangerous” or “weird” about it. I hope the Spohrs update us when they get to the bottom of the “Maddie still talks” comment — I’m really curious now!!
For what it’s worth, my experience is that it does get easier to talk about the more you do it. Expect to repeat it many, many times. And get ready for Annie (& James when the time comes) to ask why did Maddie die & have an answer ready & say why it won’t happen to them. “Maddie was born too early & her lungs were fragile but you were born at the right time and your lungs are healthy” or whatever works for you. Also you will have to have the exact same conversations with James. When dealing with my younger’s questions about death, all I could think was I’ve already done this. Good luck!
Your children are so lucky to have such thoughtful parents who really think these things through. Your children are so very lucky to have you!
Such a difficult conversation to have! My husband’s father passed away when our son was almost 3 years old. We explained it very similarly to what you told Annie but there are always questions and they seem to come up at the weirdest, usually inappropriate times. We’ve found it best to keep our answers short and to the point and he’ll (usually) move on pretty quick. it’s hard when your child brings death up in front of other kids who have no concept of death and you have to then explain to the parents what’s going on.
There’s another excellent book for children about death called When Dinosaurs Die. I use it as a school counseling resource.
I am so sorry that this is a conversation you have to have at all. I think you guys are doing great.
Crying again…can’t imagine how hard this must be.
My thoughts and love are with you as you go through these tough times. You are both very brave parents!
I think you answered Annie’s questions perfectly. As she gets older explaining Maddie being gone won’t be as hard for her to understand even though it will break your heart to have to say it.
Just wondering if Annie watches any old videos of Maddie at all that might explain her saying she still talks at all? If not, maybe Maddie is Annie’s imaginary playmate which is totally normal for her age.
This reminds me of a recent conversation with my daughter. After I explained death, she got upset and was asking if we (Mom and Dad) were going to be with her when she died because she didn’t want to be alone. I stammered a bit, but settled on “We will all be together and holding hands when you die, forever and ever.” Not sure I handled it “right”, but the topic gave me so much anxiety!
“Just keep swimming!” You and Heather are doing a fabulous job answering her queries and as she gets older those questions can be answered even more in depth and she will understand and stop asking. I loved her response that she still talks. Maybe, in her heart.
I know everyone has said this before, but I’m sorry that you have to have these conversations. It sucks. That’s the only thing I can think of to say about it.
I agree with some of the previous posters about what Annabel might mean about Maddie talking — she’s seen plenty of Maddie’s videos, right? Considering how often we dream about television/movie characters, dreaming about interacting with a person you’ve never met but seen onscreen isn’t abnormal.
I commend you for not shying away from these discussions, and allowing your daughter to know about the sibling who is no longer with you. I have a seven-year-old son, and I don’t think I’ve ever left a difficult conversation thinking, “Wow–I sure knocked that one out of the park” (and the questions have ranged from “Will you take me to heaven when I die?” and, “What are those things on that lady’s chest? They’re big!”). What she’ll remember is that you were open to the discussion. You are both wonderful parents.
I think you guys did a great job at answering her questions. I too will have to explain this subject with my son. I honestly did not know how to approach it but now thanks to you guys I have a starting point. I did get a book called Someone Came Before You. You can find it on amazon. It talks about a older sibling and why they are not here anymore.
Katie B. says:
I truly believe you guys are doing the best with Annie in regards to Maddie. And perhaps it’s just me being a romantic, but I believe that Maddie visits Annie in her dreams and watches over Annie closely, thus explaining Annie’s comment that Maddie still talks.