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Jul 14 2011

Explaining Death to My Son

By at 3:49 pm

You know you are in pretty bad shape when you scurry past a girl behind the makeup counter at a department store after returning a pair of pricey shoes you bought on a whim, who shouts, “Let me show you something for the dark circles around your eyes.”

I wish I would’ve stopped to listen. In the midst of the hectic past week, my dark circles were the last thing I thought about. In fact, I didn’t even know I had them. A mom with dark circles around her eyes? Unheard of, right?

This week was different, however. I wasn’t sure if the circles were caused by the fact that I had just found out my aunt passed suddenly in Israel, comforting my mother as she sat shiva, or the fear of explaining death and shiva to my 5-year-old son.

Death is probably the worst thing to try to explain to a child. I will take the “where do babies come from” speech any time. Simple, egg + sperm = baby. Death, not so simple.

I thought about hiding the fact that “something was wrong” from my son, because no matter what your view of the “afterlife” is, or if there is one really, let’s face it, death sucks.

Sad to say, I have had the “grandpa is up in the sky” speech with my son on many occasions in the past. Fortunately, my son is extremely bright and inquisitive. Unfortunately, short answers like “that’s the way it is” don’t work for him. I find myself always bewildered. I lost my father years before my son was born. I was very close with my father and the pain that he would never get to see his grandson that he had always spoke about as if he knew hurts daily. But with my struggle, my son is growing up “knowing” his grandfather, as we bring him up and share tidbits about him. He knows he died from being very sick.  “And not doctors could help him?” my son asked. “And no doctors could help him,” I would answer sadly.

And I thought that was enough for a little boy.  Now, with the passing of my aunt and spending each day with my mother sitting shiva for her youngest sister, the thought of dealing with death seemed unbearable. I want to shield my son from all the hurt in the world and let him believe that all is good. But how do you tell a bright-eyed, optimistic child that this life ends? Did he think that my father was the only one to die? Perhaps?

Finally, on the second to last day, my son asked what happened and who died. I explained it to him as briefly as I could with the same speech that I gave about my father’s passing.

I wasn’t sure how he was going to take it. As his eyes filled with tears, he went to hug my mom and said, “I am sorry.” He understood, and went on to play with his toys as usual. I was relieved that he had processed it and let it go.

Until we came home later that night when he turned to me and said, “I hope your aunt doesn’t get hit by an asteroid now that she is up in the sky.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. And whatever it was that had caused my dark circles all week, my aunt’s death, trying to explain it to my son or a combination of both, if the eye cream will wipe it all out and prevent recurrence, I’ll take two tubes.

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