“Does my heart start beeping when
I go to sleep at night?” my 4-year-old daughter Petunia asked, not long ago. “Does
that mean I die every night? I don’t want to die.”
I froze. Quite fortunately, death
hasn’t been a topic that has ever needed to be discussed in our family for as
long as she’s been alive. Of course, as a self-studied expert in all things
Disney, not to mention having been the accidental recipient of a joyful-though-quickly-turned-tearful
reading of I’ll Love You Forever, plus once witnessing a fox devour a ground
squirrel in our backyard, her exposure to death and dying might not be on the
forefront of her mind, but her exposure to it is near-constant nonetheless.
Still, it was the first time she
had ever verbalized any kind of a curiosity about death, and it made me realize
I needed to keep some answers in my back pocket, especially since I wanted to
ensure my message was as on-point as a politician’s campaign message, and I didn’t
want to say anything that could potentially burden her with more fear than
“No, your heart never stops
beeping,” I replied matter-of-factly. “Even when you’re asleep, your heart is
always awake, alive and beeping.”
“Oh, OK,” she said cheerfully, and
moved on to inquire when I thought she might lose her first tooth.
But my instinct to quickly learn
how to handle the topic proved to be on-target, as the questions since that
time about death have been near-constant. My mother-in-law recently visited and
volunteered to patch up one of Petunia’s play dresses, and remarked how her
mother used to sew dresses from patterns.
“Where does your mom live?”
“Oh, she’s been gone for a long
time,” my mother-in-law replied gently.
Petunia went over and hugged her
grandma. “Does that mean she died?” she said knowingly, although she didn’t
quite know what she was saying. “You must be very sad.”
Since then, Petunia has asked
frequently about her great-grandmother and expressed what appears to be dutiful
sorrow at her passing—because she somehow realizes that’s the appropriate
response, even if she doesn’t know why. On one recent night, though, her
curiosity became a little less vague.
“When will I die?” Petunia asked
me as we were cuddling one night before bed. “When I die and my heart stops
beeping, when will I get to see everyone again?”
“I don’t know when you’ll die, but
I know it won’t be for a long, long time,” I said to her reassuringly. “And,
yes, after we all die, we’ll meet again in heaven.”
I was careful not to mention that
people die when they’re older or old because I didn’t want her worrying about
her grandparents—I just told her not to worry about any of us dying anytime
soon. I also made sure the topic of death included no mentions of sleep—the
last thing any of us need is a 4-year-old keeping us or herself awake in an
effort to keep us alive.
At her age, and not having
experienced it with anyone she knows, the whole concept is still pretty abstract.
We rode the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World, and she didn’t have the
faintest concept of what the gravestones symbolized. She sees the wicked queen
fall off the cliff in the Snow White movie, but she doesn’t comprehend what it means
when told she’s never coming back.
I keep telling her honestly when
asked that everyone will, indeed, die, but I try and keep the emphasis on the
fact that we will be around for quite some time, and that the most important
thing is we stay as healthy and as happy as we possibly can and enjoy our time
while we’re alive.
Clearly, the conversation will
continue to get more specific as the years go on, but my takeaway from it has
been to let it flow as often as she needs.