Wednesday, September 07, 2005

And Then...the Questions

My son tried to make sense of death.

On the day my son's paternal grandfather died, he asked where Grandpa J had gone, and I told him he'd gone to heaven. "With angels?" he asked. "Yes, with angels," I told him. "Grandpa J can play with all the angels and he won't even get tired or sick any more, and he's probably smiling a lot." The kiddo seemed to like this explanation, but he had a hard time expressing his feelings about Grandpa J's passing. When I asked him if he wanted to talk about his feelings, he told me he hated me. He was also frustrated to tears by things that usually aren't a big deal. So...okay.

In the afternoon, he put himself down for a bigole nap and slept so long that I wondered if I should wake him for dinner or just let him sleep until the next morning. Eventually he woke up, I made dinner for him and things were fine. We sat on the couch and snuggled, then out of the blue he said, "One of my nicknames is _____." I said, "Yes, and who calls you that?"

"Grandpa K!" [my dad] he said. A minute passed, and I was wondering if he would think of Grandpa J. Then the kiddo said, "I thought 'chest pains' was when you have worms inside your chest or something." I said, "Well, that's something else that dogs can get, but are you thinking about Grandpa J?" "Yes," he said.

Then he asked me about heaven. "What's the heaven place, anyway?" he said. "It's where you can play all the time and do anything you want to do and you never get sick and you never even feel tired if you don't want to," I answered. He said, "I want to go to that place, but I don't want to die." I told him he wasn't going to die. "Everybody dies!" he yelled. "I'm going to die!" he said. I told him people usually die only when they get really, really old, and that he would be alive for a long, long, long time to do whatever he wants. "But I'm still going to die," he said. I told him that even after people die, they kind of keep living in a way, in heaven. "But they still die," he said.

I wasn't afraid of his questions, but I also was mindful of wanting not to scare him. I can still remember my mother telling me the details of childbirth when I was about eight, and that has haunted me for life. Somehow I changed the subject, and we played various games for a while. When it was time to go (back) to sleep, I was gently tickling his feet and cuddling him and he said once more, "Mommy, I don't want to die." I told him, "You're going to get up tomorrow morning and we're going to play, and the next day we're going to get up and play, and the next day we're going to play, and the next day and the next day, and we're going to keep doing that, okay? Everything is going to be fine and we're going to have a lot of fun." That seemed to satisfy him.

"What do you think angels look like?" he asked. I asked him what he thought. "Oh, I think they're guys that fly around and stuff," he said.

"What do you think angels' faces look like?" he asked. I asked him what he thought. "Well, I think their faces are probably kinda sparkly," he said.

"What color are the beds in heaven?" he asked. I asked him what he thought. "I think maybe they're gold...or silver...or purple...or blue...or red..." he said.

Finally he was ready to go to sleep.

The day after my son's grandfather died, the kiddo ran around clutching a tote bag and told me there was a baby oyster in it, that he was the oyster's daddy and I wasn't in charge of him. So basically things returned to normal, at least for the time being.

When I took him to see March of the Penguins a few weeks ago, I found myself in the position of having to explain death when the penguin's egg froze, the female penguin was eaten by the leopard seal, and a chick froze. Explaining about human death is a little different, I'm finding, and I'm sure we'll always be trying to make sense of it.