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How Death is a Part of Life: A Conversation with my 4-Year Old

The first thing my son saw die was by my own hand. He was so little. I can’t forget those little surprised and curious eyes looking at me with the question on his lips-one that he didn’t have the vocabulary for. Mommy, did you make that bee….sad?

He wasn’t so far off, I guess. Sadness is a flood and death a broken dam. There usually isn’t one without the other.

We recently spent several weeks visiting family down South. It was a blissful utopia in which my kids were denied nothing except an early bedtime and enjoyed many grandparent bestowed excesses. My happy submission to the long trip was to escape my responsibilities for a while-to vacation from life’s seriousness and the needs of my little world.

And then one evening the dog walked off the two story deck. And my kids and I watched her breathe her last breaths. And it was a dog, not a person, but somehow we understood that breath could either connect or separate us.

It was a chilly evening so we covered her with a warm blanket.

I watched for signs of despair. I looked to see if he would cry, my sensitive four year old boy. Instead I saw unconcerned indifference. But no, there was more. A burst of frenetic play, then quiet stillness. “I’m just tired,” he said sitting down. There it was-those brain cogs turning and faltering; struggling to identify the feeling that can’t help manifesting itself as something. Tired.

“You know,” I said. “I am so sad that Boucle died.” His body slumped in understanding. “Me too. I’m so sad.”

And we talked that night. About death and leaving, reuniting and sadness. And how dying is a part of living, but it is ok-we accept this with all the rest. 

He took it all in matter of factly and then regurgitated it to his sister in the bathtub. I pretended not to listen, but leaned in with all my heart. “Now we don’t have a little white dog to pet anymore,” he said, connecting the event to what it will mean for him. “I’m just sad, though.” He keeps saying this.

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I sit on the closed toilet lid and recognize discomfort over the subject in my heart, and so I resolve to revisit it alone in my room. I want to parent honestly and so I speak only words that I can believe. I don’t tell him that he will see her again, I don’t know that. I don’t tell him that she is in doggy heaven, because really, what alternate universe did that theology come from?

I only tell him that it is ok and right to be sad. That sadness over death is good for him because it means he enjoys life and sharing it with others. I tell him that there is a time for each living thing to die, that Boucle was fragile and it was her time.

But it’s a dog and I almost can’t find words of comfort for him. I decide to leave the question “why?” not wholly answered. Grief is often experienced with unanswered questions and I don’t know that the truest answer isn’t something about being able to relate to the suffering of others.

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Inside my own body right now are two beating hearts. A life within a life. Nothing but life could be more important to me right now as I breathe for two people and live for far more. I know that what I believe about life and death could mean the difference between a healthy starting point and a fearful uncertainty as he develops his own world view. 

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I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity to join my son in grief for anything.

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6 Responses to How Death is a Part of Life: A Conversation with my 4-Year Old

  1. Elissa April 9, 2014 at 8:13 am #

    This is beautiful. I’ve often wondered how I’ll approach the topic of death with my very perceptive and sensitive son. It’s helpful to see your process and his

    • Christin
      Christin April 11, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

      Thanks Elissa. The first time it came up I wasn’t prepared for it. But I’ve given it some thought since then. I wish my kids would let me know ahead of time when they will be curious about certain topics, haha.

  2. Cheryl April 9, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    Beautiful and touching.

  3. Kate April 10, 2014 at 8:47 am #

    Christin,
    So well done. I have goosebumps. “leaned in with all my heart”, wow. You’ve just described parenting done right.

    • Christin
      Christin April 11, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

      Thanks Kate!

  4. Maggie Standley June 24, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    Beautifully written and expressed! Merci-

    Sadness is a flood, and death a broken dam…what a line! There is a song or symphony or painting in there-

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