My eldest child happened to be born at a time when death surrounded our family. Within the span of a year or so, almost 8 people left their physical bodies behind (older and younger family members). Recently, that has happened again. In between those 6 years of dealing with death, veganism happened to me which is a direct response, in many ways, to death. So when my child was old enough to understand what life and death was, I made sure he understood what life and death was- simple enough, right? 🙂
So the first inklings of this conversation began with food- especially when my son was offered animal based foods. People– like my parents– thought that I was being brutally honest by saying something was “dead” instead of using a euphemism. Sometimes it was a little frustration driven like when he was being offered BBQ ribs by family knowing full well that I am vegan and prefer a modest mostly vegetarian diet for my son (but that’s an entirely different blog post). So I would tell him, however, that he’s eating “dead cow” or “dead pig” or whatever he was eating. Some people think its gross but the point is that if its gross, then why are you eating it? Calling something bluntly what it is without glossing over the truth.
The thing is he was not afraid to eat these foods- he never cried because he knew that he ate a dead animal. He just realized that something had to die in order for him to enjoy his meal. I didn’t gloss over vegetables either- he asked if plants had to die to eat them and of course I answered in the affirmative despite trying to explain that there is a *slight* difference between dead animal food and dead plant food.
Building upon that, when he was very young we were fortunate enough to take trips to the forest regularly. When we would hike through the forest, he would see the fallen trees and try to lift them back up so they could stand again and be living. I adored this about him. 🙂 When he would get upset and look to me for answers on why they would not stand any longer, I would tell him that it was because the trees were dead. The first time he was upset because just like me he doesn’t like the idea of trees being killed (i.e. deforestation) but I explained that when a tree dies, it gives so much life to other plants and animals that it’s not really missed at all. That tree continues to be celebrated in life and death because of all the important things that the tree gives to its community. I explained to him the cycle of life and how what dies is born again in other ways. That while one thing seems to leave, it is still there living on in other ways.
When he spoke about living forever or me living forever or just some idea that people wouldn’t ever change from the way that things were now, I told him that everything dies. That even though people may die and no longer be around, we can honor them and celebrate them just the same way that the forest celebrates a fallen tree. By using the things those people stood for and championed in our lives, we are making our life’s soil even more fertile with the humus and nourishment they left behind by living their life.
So all this prepared him well for these days when again, family members are suffering and leaving the physical world behind. He stands strong and says simply, “they are dead.” I thought perhaps he was hiding his sadness when we spoke about the passing of my beloved family members but he just reminded me of my own words, “They’re dead and it doesn’t matter because every one dies. I miss them but I can think of them and do the things they loved and that’s like getting to play with them.” He’s truly amazing, I believe.
I don’t think that I’ve stumbled upon some magical formula for coping with death or teaching kids to cope with death. It’s all challenging no matter which way you slice it. While I am learning more and more to be completely at peace with the loss of a family member, it’s not any easier to think of the things you will never hear– like calling their house and knowing you’ll never again hear their quirky greeting on the other end. It doesn’t matter how many years go by, you’ll still wish that you could have heard it one more time I suppose.
But in these challenging times i look to my son for that inspiration and acceptance that he’s been able to cultivate. I love that he can move on and celebrate without sadness or inhibition and that is the beauty of learning that life is life and death is death and that in life and death we are in balance.