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How I told my child about death

Published on: May 01, 2006

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When my dog Schultz died, I was awash in grief, for he had been my
constant and faithful companion for 15 years. I should have realized
the impact on my 3-year-old son. He was petrified. Not only had his dog
disappeared, but his mother had completely lost it.

I told Nate that Schultz had been very old and sick and that the vet
couldn't make him better. So Schultz had died and gone to heaven to be
with everyone else who had died. I explained to Nate that I was happy
that Schultz was feeling better now, but that I was crying because I
miss him so much. I thought that I had done a good job handling such a
difficult experience for a child. Then the questions began.

One day, as the kids and I were driving in the car, Nate asked, "Is Schultz with grandfather?" Hmm.

"Yes," I replied. "Schultz is with grandfather. They are very happy
together in heaven, living with God." We weren't a religious household,
but God had come up in vague conversation and I hoped this would be
enough information to satisfy Nate for now.

It was enough. For about three months. Then came the holidays. As I was
herding the extended family into their coats for the yearly Holiday
Tour of Garishly Lighted Homes, Nate paused at the door, turned to me
and asked, "Where's Schultz?"

Everyone else turned and looked at me too.

I replied, "Remember, honey, Schultz died."

Nate hadn't taken his eyes off me. "He didn't want to live with me anymore?"

I was taken aback. I crossed the room and knelt by his side. "Oh, no,
Nate. He wanted to stay with you, with us, but he has a good life in
heaven now."

That night, I laid with Nate on his bed. I wanted to follow up on the Schultz issue.

"Nate, do you understand about Schultz? That he doesn't live with us
anymore, but he does live in heaven, and although he misses us a lot,
he is happy there."

"Maybe Schultz could go to the doctor, and the doctor could give him
medicine, and Schultz would get better, and he could come home," Nate
offered.

"Schultz was too sick for medicine to help him. When dogs get very old
and sick, they die. They go to live with God in heaven." I was getting
choked up.

Nate put his arm over his eyes. "Maybe Dr. God could give Schultz
medicine and he could get better, and he could come home."

I was definitely crying now and just hoped to keep it quiet. I caught
my breath, but Nate spoke before I could reply.

"Goodnight, Mommy. I'm ready to sleep now."

I kissed him and left the room, gently closing the door behind me and
wondering how I could have done a better job of explaining death to a
young boy.

"Mommy, do people die?"

We were in the car, driving to a birthday party, when Nate came out with this question. I sighed.

"Yes, people die. But not until they are very old and they have lived for a very long time."

"Older than Nanny?"

"Yes."

"Older than Didi?" Didi was my 89-year-old grandmother.

"Um, yes."

"Will I die?" Ugh.

"Yes, you will die someday, but not for a very, very, very long time."

My 2-year-old daughter Leah, not to be left out of anything her brother
was doing, chimed in. "Leah die too? Leah die too?"

"Yep, Leah, you will die too."

"Wow!"

Nate continued his own train of thought. "Will Courtney die?" Courtney was the birthday girl.

"Yes." I hoped he didn't bring this up at the party. There is no better
way to quash the joy of a 4-year-old's birthday party than to bring up
her inevitable death.

"So all people and dogs die?"

"Yes."

"God has a big house."

"You bet."

It has been a year since my quiet canine companion died. I still get
tears in my eyes at unexpected moments. So does Nate. I think Nate
remembers a warm, soft presence who gave him sweet, quiet love. Now
that presence is gone, and Nate feels its loss.

Nate was petting our neighbor's dog one recent day when he said to me, "I want a dog."

I asked, "Oh? A pet dog? Like Schultz?"

"Yes," he answered. "But I think it would be better this time to get a dog that isn't dead."

Nate has no clear idea about death and I couldn't give him one, try as
I might. I thought of showing Nate a Michelangelo painting, to give him
a simple but tangible idea of death and heaven: "Here are the people.
Here are the souls of the dead people flying up in the air. Here are
God and Jesus sitting on clouds in heaven. There you have it."

But I was sure that the questions would keep coming, for Nate knew that
this was much more of a mystery than God, Grandfather and Schultz
floating around on clouds. Perhaps with that superior inquisitiveness
of a child, Nate wasn't going to be satisfied with the simple answers I
had come to accept. The more he questions me, the more he realizes that
I just don't have all of the answers. The surprising thing is, I
thought I did.

Seattle-area writer Scotti Andrews is often inspired by her children to write either humorous essays or fictional horror stories.

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