By John Proctor
This weekend we picked up Stringbean from a weeklong end-of-summer stay at her grandma’s house in New Jersey. Her grandma, my mother-in-law, laughingly told a story while we were there about having dinner earlier this week with Stringbean and an old friend of hers who was also visiting. Before dinner, her friend began praying. The prayer was rather long, and Stringbean kept looking up at her grandma, perplexed. Finally she looked at grandma and asked, “Who is she talking to?”
The story has already entered Stringbean lore. She hasn’t yet concerned herself with the idea of god, mainly because her mother and I don’t concern ourselves terribly with these thoughts. But she has been asking questions over the past few months that show a mind making its first grasps at the idea of death.
Both my wife and I are agnostic. Part of the reason I call myself agnostic is that it gives me tangible justification, when people bring up god and religion, for not just saying, “I don’t know,” but saying, “I don’t know, and I’ve organized my belief system around it.” Just like most political centrists are not in the direct center but rather the shallow end of the right or left wing, I probably lean more toward atheist , but saying I’m agnostic usually cuts off arguments either because 1)it’s very hard to argue with “I don’t know,” or 2) the person I’m talking to doesn’t know what agnostic means.
Children, though, are a different story. They don’t want to hear “I don’t know.” They want definite answers, from the people they trust most: their parents. And lately, her grandmother’s story notwithstanding, Stringbean has been asking some tough questions.
It started in late April. We were having breakfast one Sunday when out of nowhere she asked, “What’s ‘die’ mean?” Then she asked, “When are you gonna die?” Then she asked, “Where do people go when they die?”
I was not ready for that from my almost-four-year-old. Her mom wasn’t there to intercede, so I simply said no one knows what happens when we die, that it’s a great mystery.
Every week or two since then, she’ll spring another one on us, like:
- How do we die?—Shortly before she asked this the first time, I actually overheard a woman walking with at least three children, who had obviously just asked the same question, as she was recounting, “People die because they’re sick, people die because they fall, people die because they’re old…”
- How am I gonna die?—Gasp.
- When are we gonna die?—“This question bothered even the ancient Greeks,” I replied. “They learned not to ask.”
- Are we all gonna die at the same time?—This, of all questions, I thought was most psychologically complex. So far as I can guess, my child was either 1) wondering if she would ever have to live without her mom and dad, or 2) seeking comfort that we wouldn’t have to grieve each other’s deaths.
I should emphasize here that Stringbean shows no signs of desperation or anxiety when asking these questions. She asks all of them quite matter-of-factly, actually. And as you can probably tell by now, whenever she asks me these questions, to which I don’t know a simple or easy answer, my first inclination is to make a joke.
I think this is my method of defusing potentially explosive subjects, sapping their power simply by flipping the script: if someone, especially Daddy, is making jokes about it, it must be funny. But I know that will only get me so far here, because 1) Stringbean doesn’t yet get most of my jokes, and 2) these questions are too important to joke away.
Finally, last month all of these questions became even more concrete for her when my grandmother died at age 84. She wondered why I had to fly back to Kansas, why I was sad about someone she only met once and didn’t really remember, where Grandma Ruby was now.
My answer to that last question, “In the ground,” was perhaps heartless when it first came out, but I improvised as I went. I explained that Grandma Ruby’s body would now feed the earth and make it possible for all the flowers both she and Stringbean loved to grow and bloom.
“How?” she asked.
“Worms,” I replied.
To my relief, she laughed.
It could be I’ll never be able to answer this type of questions quickly or easily; nonetheless, I’d like to at least be able to answer them when my children ask in a way that is both comforting and honest. I’m going to spend some time reading up on the subject of introducing children to the idea of death (primarily) and spirituality (secondarily) over the next few months, but I would love to hear from any of you as well. How did you, do you, or do you plan on introducing your children gently to the idea of death, and our place in the cycle of life?
John Proctor is our resident dad and writes on his experience living and raising his two children in Brooklyn. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2000, and been a father since 2009. Besides keeping company with his wife, two daughters, and chihuahua, he also writes memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in the Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, New York Cool, and Gotham Gazette, and he serves as editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can see more of him at his website NotThatJohnProctor.com, and he can also be reached at email@example.com. He’d love to hear from you!