On a recent drive past the urban mega-cemetery where the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway intersects the Long Island Expressway, my five-year-old exclaimed, "Look, a stone forest!" It was a wondrous, important place in her eyes, and though she had visited graveyards, she had never taken in such a striking panoramic view of one. Having officiated at several of her own pet funerals in her brief career as a thinking, feeling being, she exhibited a comfortable somberness at the sight. I could see her lips move slightly as she attempted to count in hushed amazement the innumerable headstones rocketing past our view. "What are all those stones for, Daddy?"
Processing death is a little different from our other parental duties and the regular disruptions to our familial stases. It's a bit richer, as parenting challenges go, existing as it does at a confluence of emotional and spiritual avenues of unparalleled magnitude. Bring together a touch of gut-wrenching sorrow, add some deep-seated fear of the unknowable, shake them together with even mildly differing parenting inclinations, and you've got quite a paralyzing cocktail. It's no wonder wincing parents want to sidestep the issue of death, for the sake of their own comfort and that of their young ones. It's awkward, challenging material, which for many of us is worse than simple sadness. We just don't know the truth about death, and we don?t want to mess this up.
You would think that given the frequency and inevitability of death we might all be sharing a clearer pool of collective wisdom on presenting it to our children. Part of the confusion, the hesitation, we experience when confronted by these dicey topics in our children's rapidly changing lives is that the windows of application are so brief. I'm only going to have to deal with a major first-love scenario once for each of my two daughters, right? You talk to a preschooler differently from an elementary-age kid about a new pregnancy in the family, right? The landscape of child development changes so dramatically and so rapidly, we are left with only our instincts and reflexes to guide us through perpetually uncharted territory. And then, of course, there's the fact that none of us actually knows anything about this topic, the far side of death.
Adding to the complexity of death's presence in our lives, the collective American marketplace is not much for pain and sorrow. Our beauty-failures receive their fair share of advertisers' attention, but for the most part we are informed that we are good enough, that we "deserve a break today," and "why ask why?" We have innumerable opportunities to consume products that will make us more "happy," or at least numb our discomfort. So pervasive are these pathways to happiness, that we can experience an acute sense of failure if our children are not happy, if their "needs" are not met, even for a moment. "Quick, get a toy! No, honey, get one that makes noises!" Confronting death is just hard emotional work, without the quick fixes we see portrayed in the world around us.
On occasion when I'm out with my kids on the street and one of them happens to be crying because she didn't get the color gumball she had her heart set on or she smashed her finger, strangers will approach her and say things like "Don't cry. You're so young. You should be happy." That's a pressure, and a false way of living, that I don't want my kids to have to manage. Life, even for a child, isn't just joy joy joy, and if a person can't bear for a child to feel some sadness or disappointment in life then it's for that person's own sake, not the child's. Our overprotection cripples our kids, not helps them. They are young humans, and to grow up to be well-sorted older humans they need to have real experiences and to have age appropriate answers to difficult questions so they can get to know their feelings. The answer to their sadness is not to eat a "happy" meal. Their sadness IS the very encouraging answer to the question: "Are you alive and perceiving?"
Death remains a part of every single life cycle, regardless of its duration. Just as it's important to allow our growing toddlers experiences with balancing and falling down to build their resilience, insight, and coordination, they need to practice experiencing the complexity of empathy, rage, and grief. So, get your kid a pet if you're willing: he needs the practice. Our pets give our children small, meaningful doses of death practice in a world in which our technologies have limited the omnipresence of death and pushed it to the periphery. Only a few decades ago, even in our rapidly advancing American society, fairly rarely did anyone reach adulthood without losing a sibling, or at least a cousin. So, thanks, pets, for being there for our emotional enrichment, and doing the dirty work.
Most important, honestly tell your kid the mix of thoughts and feelings YOU experience when death presents itself; he needs the modeling. When we experience death and loss, it is a sad, uncomfortable time for us. Let's not pretend to our children that we are "fine," or that our families never have to visit the stone forest, or that this important, quiet place does not exist. Just as having children gives rise to the exhilarating status "with" that defines our lives, death and loss gives birth to the inevitable status "without" to define them as well. Let's prepare our children for that, and lead them through the process genuinely. How dishonest it would be never to acknowledge the hope and expectation each of us parents carries soberly, silently within us: long before our children pass on, we want go take our places in the stone forest first, leaving them to grieve and carry on without us there to guide them.