Raising Richmond: Let’s talk about death

“That was a kind thing,” my daughter told me when recounting something nice she did at school. “Jesus would be so happy, but he’s dead.” Welcome to her world. It’s all about the death.

My daughter is a typical, talkative four-year-old. We rarely filter her subjects unless it’s to tell her that something could hurt someone’s feelings. Among her favorite topics of conversation: movies and TV, remembering moments in her life when she was injured,1 Jesus, and death.

I don’t remember her saying anything about death before last summer. We were at the pool, and there were two dead crabs floating in the water. They were cleaned out, and her dad said something about how they were just taking a rest. And she said, “No, I think they’re dead.” From then on, we knew we didn’t need to sugarcoat anything.

I’m not sure why she talks about death and dying as much as she does. Though we don’t bring death up more than we need to, we’ve told her that plants, animals, people–all livings things–die eventually. Learning about Jesus at her school has gotten her to believe that things come back to life. I assured her this isn’t true, though I suppose with the upcoming lessons on Easter, I’ll have to do more damage control regarding your typical resurrection.

If my child is abnormally preoccupied with people being dead, I don’t know if I’m helping or hurting by how plainly I respond. She doesn’t seem to be concerned with mortality, but I occasionally remind her that, although everyone dies, we are not likely to die anytime soon, so it’s not something worth worrying about. All we can do is try to stay safe and healthy. Also the idea that people die because they get old leads her to ask often if me or her dad are old, and sometimes she’ll decide for herself and just tell me if she thinks we are.

We’ve talked about how it’s sad when people die, and that we keep people alive in our hearts by remembering them.2 The recent death of our cat brought up a lot of questions and talk about missing her and remembering things she did. Our cat was cremated, but our daughter asked a lot of questions about what happens to bodies and faces after death.3

We took her to Hollywood Cemetery for the first time recently. It seemed like a timely trip to take since she’s been chatting about dead people a lot, and one of her favorite strips in the comic collection It Was a Dark and Silly Night takes place in a cemetery. My mom took my siblings and me there as kids, but I’d never thought to take our kid there before because there is no swingset, but there was enough happening to make it a worthwhile trip, including:

  • There were benches. She was excited about “taking a rest” after we had walked around for all of two minutes.
  • Looking out for angel and dog memorials.
  • Finding her name.
  • Walking around independently looking for the stone alphabet markers that organized the Confederate soldiers.

When we first told her we were going there, she asked if we would see dead people or at least mummies, but she still seemed to have a good time despite nothing ghoulish happening. Plus, it really is a beautiful place to go, and it’s nice to have another setting for active time outside that isn’t a playground (parents need to move their legs, too, and that’s not always possible on playgrounds).

She brings up death so casually that it often makes me laugh (her “Jesus is dead” announcement to my friends was my favorite story to tell fourth quarter 2014). She told me, “If we get smooshed, my dad wouldn’t have any more ladies,” when we had to stop abruptly to avoid a moving car in a parking lot. When asked what she knows about George Washington, her answer was “He died.” And, one of my favorite quote of hers: “When I’m an adult, you’ll be dead.” I have told her that’s not necessarily true.

“When will you die?” she asked. “Not for a long time, I hope,” I told her. “I’m not planning to die anytime soon.”

We had an awkward moment while listening to the Frozen song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” in the car, during the part of the song that plays while Ana and Elsa’s parents die during the storm. She asked me what was happening in the song, and I reminded her that it was the part in which the parents died on the boat. I realized that maybe she didn’t know that’s what happened since it’s never said in the movie that they die. There are dead parents/siblings in almost every movie she’s watched. It’s basically like watching Game of Thrones. Don’t get too attached to that character, he/she will be killed to give the main character a reason to be alone for a weekend.

She does ask questions about how things come to life, too, so there is balance in the conversations of the house. This is just what she’s talking about now and what she’s processing. Ideas about death and killing come up a lot in stories and movies, and obviously she questions everything she doesn’t understand. I don’t think that any of this morbid small talk will make a real tragic event any easier to handle, and I don’t know what impact any of this will have on her. It all seems to be part of her natural curiosity.

  1. Her worst injury to date happened two summers ago when she hopped on her friend’s scooter and immediately flew down the front steps outside and busted up her face. It was a huge parent fail for me and a very scary moment (no stitches, thankfully). She brings it up a lot. Even her friend who owned the scooter reminded me of it the other day. 
  2. I’m glad that she saw the Book of Life, which portrays celebrating the lives of those who have passed with the Day of the Dead. It wasn’t a sudden, sad Disney death sort of movie. 
  3. I’m sure there are great kids’ books out there about what happens to bodies when they die, but she would want to read that more than I’d want to read it with her. 
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Kelly Gerow

Kelly Gerow lives and writes in Richmond. She probably does other stuff in Richmond, too.

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