Friday, August 17, 2018

Talking About Mortality With Kids


On a recent gloomy morning, my son and I were sitting in my car waiting to turn left onto a main thoroughfare. Across from us was a large cemetery and, as we waited to turn, we witnessed an elderly couple placing a floral arrangement on a headstone.

We pass this particular cemetery every day, but none of our children had ever asked about its function and we were understandably reluctant to be drawn in to a conversation about the internment of human corpses. However, the couple caught my five-year old son’s attention and, for the first time in his life, he asked “What is that place?’

Taking a deep breath, I replied that it was a cemetery and foolishly hoped that this would be the end of this line of inquiry. It was not. Then came the inevitable follow up question, “What’s a cemetery?” I delicately tried to explain that when people die, they would be buried in a cemetery. He then wanted to know how they died, so I responded that sometimes people get sick and do not get better.

He then wanted to know if the couple we had seen was about to bury someone who was sick. Doing my best to abstain from any references to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I explained that they were probably visiting the grave of someone who had already died. It might have been a relative or friend of theirs and this was how they remembered them.

He then asked about the purpose of the concrete markers coming out of the ground. I explained that these were called headstones and usually contained information about the person who was buried there. At this point, I began to speed up in the hope that we would arrive at his school before our conversation progressed to embalming techniques.

Then, as if processing the weight of this information and the implications of his own mortality, he furrowed his brow and looked out of the window before asking, “Are there kids there?”

I was certainly not prepared for this line of inquiry, but I also did not want to mislead him if he was asking an honest question. So, I hesitantly admitted that it was certainly possible that there were kids there because sometimes (although it is rare) kids get sick and cannot get better. This was met with silence as he looked out the window. Concerned that I had upset him, I tried to gently steer the subject away from kids. I told him that there was even a section for dogs.

Upon hearing this, he turned away from the window and asked, “Why would they have sick kids and dogs at a daycare?”

Confused, I responded that I was not talking about a daycare but rather the graveyard we had passed. He then - visibly taken aback - exclaimed “There are kids in the cemetery!?”

It was at this point, I realized that he had wordlessly changed the subject mid-conversation and I was a varsity-level moron. Furthermore, when I had seen him looking out the window (and assumed that he was pondering the breadth of human frailty) he was looking at a daycare along the same road and simply wanted to know if they were open.

About this time, we pulled up to the school and he jumped out of the car. I immediately called my wife and tried to explain what had transpired (in case he came home from the library with a copy of Pet Cemetery). She listened in silence before responding in her flawless “you had one job to do” voice:

So let me get this straight. While driving our nervous son to school on his second day of Kindergarten, you managed to get into a conversation about dead children buried near our house. Is that correct?

It was a rather damning (though not inaccurate) summation and I feebly replied that it was never my intention to discuss the burial of deceased children; that is just where the conversation went.

Well, when the school sends home a note wondering why our son keeps telling people, “My daddy says that when children do not get better, they bury them by our house” I am going to let you handle that.

You can imagine my trepidation as I went to retrieve my son after school and half-expected Haley Joel Osment to wander out mumbling about “the things none one else could see.”

Fortunately, he seemed no worse for the wear and made no mention of cadavers or graveyards. I am sure this, like many of our conversations, will make valuable therapy fodder later in life.

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