An Unexpected Question

“Mommy, what happens to your head after you die?” Molly asked, as she hopped in the van after school. Why do kids ask the most impossible questions on the days I haven’t had my coffee? Just once I’d like to not be dumbfounded by my children’s imaginations. “What?” I muttered, as I crammed her backpack, coat, and various knick-knacks into the back seat. “Does your head turn to stone?” she followed, staring at me curiously. “Molly, why are you asking me this?” I queried, as I started up the van and trundled towards home. “Sasha says that Mr. Peterson died,” she tossed out nonchalantly. Talk about a bombshell! Of all the things I was unprepared for, I was not ready for a conversation about death. “I’m sure Sasha’s wrong, sweetie. If Mr. Peterson died, the school would’ve told me. He’s probably just on vacation.” With bated breath, I glanced at Molly in the mirror; thankfully, she accepted my answer and moved on to talking about flamingos.

I wasn’t so lucky the next day. “Sasha says she knows for sure that Mr. Peterson died,” Molly stated. “Her mom says for sure. What happens when you die?” Oh boy. Here I was, dealing with my five-year-old daughter’s existential crisis in a minivan that smelled like old French fries. How could I answer her question? How could I tell her that people have been wondering about death since the first human/fish/lizard blorped out of the primordial ooze and started walking on land? I don’t know, and quite frankly, death scares the beejeezus out of me, and always has.

Right around Molly’s age, when I was five, I became aware of death. Every night, without fail, I would lie in bed and terrify myself. The idea of someday not existing shook me to my core, and I would scramble out of bed, climb into my dad’s lap, and start sobbing (my dad later confessed that I was scream-crying directly into his ear, and that he went quite deaf on that side). My poor parents must have felt helpless; how do you comfort a child filled with mortal dread? Finally, as my mother put me to bed one night, she grabbed an oversized teddy bear from my bureau, thrust it into my arms, and said “here, this teddy will protect you.” I slept soundly through the night, and every night after that. That bear’s name is Frankie, and he sits proudly on my wardrobe today.

As we pulled into our driveway, Molly’s question gnawed at me. But how could I explain something I knew nothing about? After doing some research, and talking with my husband Jeremy, I broached the topic at dinner that night. “Molly, remember how you were asking about death? “’[Death is the end of living. When [you] die, your body stops working. You don’t need to eat, drink or breathe anymore. It’s not like sleeping; once someone dies, they’re dead forever and can’t come back. But when a person dies, a special part of them lives on in our hearts and our memories, to love and remember them after they’re gone]. ‘”* I watched her face carefully, and held my breath as Molly chewed. “But what happens to your head?” she finally asked. “Um, your head stays here. On Earth,” I replied nervously. Another thoughtful chew…… “okay,” Molly answered, then launched into a description of a goose she saw at school. Jeremy and I exchanged looks; had we done the right thing? Had we explained properly? Was she too young for this? For the millionth time, I cursed the vagaries of adulthood and longed to be a teenager again (no responsibilities, disposable income, waistline that didn’t resemble a cheese wheel).

Death is a whisper in the back of my mind, one that’s never truly silent; I have to fight the whisper from becoming a roar. It’s never easy. As I tucked Molly into bed that night, as she smiled and giggled, I realized yet again how amazing and wonderful it is to have my kids in my life. Every decision I’ve ever made has resulted in Molly and my son, Andy, sleeping peacefully in their beds and quietly dreaming. Life is a beautiful ache in my heart, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have many more years to wonder at its loveliness. Oh, and about Mr. Peterson, the “dead” man who started all of this? A quick phone call to Sasha’s mom confirmed that Mr. Peterson was alive and on vacation; he’d told Sasha’s mom he was “dead tired”. Talk about a fantastic miscommunication!

*Crossroads Hospice Charitable Foundation. (2016, September 5). How to Explain Death to Children. How to Explain Death to Children | CRHCF