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Everyone Dies and Kids Need to Know That

Photograph by Twenty20

My father died on July 19th, 2003. He was 54 years old. He passed away in a car accident on a highway in upstate New York. People talk about stages of grief, and I think they do exist. Over the past decade, I have been numb, in denial, furious, suffering, healed, resigned. I have raged at my father and longed for him and learned how to cope with his death in the best ways I know how. After more than 10 years, his absence is like a bruise on a part of my body that I can't see. Sometimes I walk around without noticing it for days, until suddenly I knock it against something, and the pain is blinding. Then I grieve and ache, and I accept all over again that he is gone.

When my daughter was born, I felt the loss of my father in new ways. He never got to know her, or even the man I married. My dad lost his own father before I was born, and I remember him expressing the same sadness.

"He would have loved you," my father used to say. "He would have thought you were the cat's pajamas."

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My two-year-old daughter is learning about families. She is fascinated by her friends' moms and dads, siblings and grandparents. It's exciting to discover that Grandma Susan is Daddy's mom and Grandma Carol is Mommy's mom. On a recent morning, after her father left for work, she recited where other people's daddies had gone.

"My daddy is at work. Emily's daddy is at work. Leo's daddy is at work. Leila's daddy is at her house. Leila's mommy is at work." Then she looked at me casually and asked, "Where's your daddy?"

I froze. My heart pounded. I was totally unprepared.

"Um, my daddy isn't here anymore," I stammered.

She seemed to accept this feeble explanation and moved on to building a tower with her Legos, but I was shaken. Of course, this moment was coming. Why hadn't I planned for it? Why hadn't I researched ways to talk to young children about death? How long did I think I could avoid answering this question?

But I can't protect her from the truth that everything dies, that people leave us, and we miss them so much.

The next day, I called a psychologist friend and begged her for advice.

"Be honest," she said. "Don't lie. Don't use euphemisms. Don't worry about how much she understands. The point is that she sees you being authentic and present about it."

That sounded right. But it didn't reassure me. I worried about confusing my child or creating huge new fears. If I explained about the accident, would she be terrified to get in the car, as I was for years? Would she imagine her own father's death or mine, fearful of being left alone? How could I be authentic about the grief that was sometimes overwhelming?

"Has your daughter seen anything die?" my friend asked. "Like a pet or even a spider?"

"No," I admitted. "I even gloss over the spiders—It's gone. Mommy got it. Bye-bye spider!"

My friend laughed. "Maybe it's not a bad idea to let her see that everything dies. Nothing is permanent. That's what life is. It doesn't have to be scary."

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And suddenly, I had a moment of clarity. My daughter had never seen death. She had never grieved for anyone. The loss of my father wasn't hers, it was mine. She wouldn't ache for a grandfather she had never known. She wasn't afraid that death was waiting around every corner, I was.

I am.

I carry that fear of violent, random death every day. Not the inevitable death of old age that might be dignified, even peaceful. But unfair, perverse death that takes you when life still holds a million possibilities. My daughter doesn't have that fear. And I hope more than anything that she never will.

I hope she will grieve for me and my husband when she is 40 or 50, knowing that we lived full and happy lives. But I can't protect her from the truth that everything dies, that people leave us, and we miss them so much.

My daughter hasn't asked about my father again, but I know that she will. And next time, I hope I will find the words to tell her the truth.

"My daddy died. There was a bad accident, and he died. Some people believe that we will see him again, but no one really knows. I miss him very much. He would have loved you. He would have thought you were the cat's pajamas."

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