Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mom, What's a Funeral?

“Mom, what's a funeral?” Caleb asks me from the back seat of the car.

I asked for this. Caleb had wondered out loud where our friend was today, and I told him she went to a funeral. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I knew I was in for it.

OK. So, how to answer? Caleb is 3. There's probably some well vetted, developmentally appropriate response to this question, but driving in the car, I did not have access to it.

I could just give a kind of murky half-truth answer to the question, ala “it's a time when people come together to celebrate someone's life.” But then again... maybe I should just go for it.

Living here in Kenya makes me think that children are a lot more capable of coping with the truth about life and death than we give them credit for. Adults talk about it freely with their kids. There are funerals nearly every week. The greater mortality and larger extended family networks mean that people – along with their children - simply go to more funerals.

One of the first songs sung to Caleb here (at less than 2 years old), went like this: “Caleb anataka chinja kuku”. Translation: Caleb wants to slaughter a chicken. It was a catchy little ditty accompanied by hand motions indicating a knife slitting across the neck. It was all done with the whimsy and joy of a nursery rhyme.

And speaking of nursery rhymes, those suckers are loaded with pretty morbid imagery. I find myself singing gleefully to this same child “I don't know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she'll DIE” and softly crooning, “... down will come baby, cradle and all.” At night we curl up and read little tales about Jack falling down hills and breaking his head, and grown women cutting off tails with carving knives. All of which makes me think that in our own not so distant past we were comfortable talking about death with our kids. And it makes sense. Death was more frequent and more visible. It didn't happen in hospitals, but in the home. The parlor room was a room specifically for laying out the dead. Kids dealt with it.
Aww... sweet little bedtime story, right?
So, all this running through my mind I told Caleb, using my best and most reassuring mom-as-teacher voice: “Well, honey, a funeral is somewhere you go to bury someone who has died and celebrate their lives. You know, remember what you loved about them. It's also to comfort people who are sad.”

There. I felt pretty proud of this explanation.

Caleb sat with it silently for a few minutes, chewing on the idea. Then from the backseat of my car: “Mom, I don't want to die. Will I die?”

CRAP. Well, now I just want to die. Why did I just tell my 3 year old about death?

My grandfather died when I was 6 years old. It shook me up and gave me nightmares. I would crawl in my parents bed in the middle of night and plead with them not to die. My parents were, much like I am now, at a loss. They sent me to a therapist. Maybe it was overkill, but how do you help a small person deal with that ugly reality of life?

So, what did I say in response to Caleb's very profound question? I stammered out, “Um. No. I don't think so. Let's just not worry about that right now.” I changed the subject quickly, praying that he would just forget about it.

Ridiculous. A "what not to do" moment. What happened to all my brutal honesty? Maybe if I was religious I'd have a more optimistic response about heaven, and I'm thinking now I should have just said something like that. But it caught me off guard. It's pretty heavy stuff to deal with on the way to school.

I'm your run of the mill culturally Jewish progressive agnostic and my husband was raised Baha'i. We both have our spiritual ambivalence and struggles. But my son doesn't. He's just looking for answers and some comfort. And I need to find a way to give that to him. Quick.


  1. Oh that is hard and I know I will be getting similar questions soon enough. My kids already understand death (to some small degree) in terms of wildlife and insects but I don't think they've brought that full circle to people yet. I don't really have any answers for you but your post has got me thinking that I should go do some research on children's books to see if I can find an appropriate one to read when the time comes. They are my favorite resource for dealing with difficult questions but since we don't have a local Barnes & Noble they are no help when a question I wasn't anticipating far, far in advance comes up.

    I am also agnostic and can't think of a really comforting way to describe death. Will be interested to know if this conversation evolves and if you find something that works well for Caleb. Good luck - I will be thinking of you!

  2. Just did a quick search and found this book that gets great reviews on Amazon - Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. There is a Kindle version available and you are probably much more tech savvy than I am but I just this week discovered the Kindle Cloud Reader which allows you to purchase Kindle books and read them online even if you don't have a Kindle. Just thought I would pass it along in case you end up needing some help talking about this right now.

    1. Thank you so much for that! I do have a kindle (I was reluctant, but its crucial here since there are really no book stores or libraries, even if it has exploded our book budget). So, I'm definitely going to check this out and we can read together on the computer. Great idea. How did I know you'd have some awesome resource about this. I don't home school, but I'm also stealing some of your ideas since on that front. ; )

  3. Noah and I had a lot of discussions about death when my grandmother passed away. I just told him that he wasn't going to die until he was 100 (which is the age at which my grandmother died!), that he had a long time to live, and so did I!

    So do you remember your thought process when you were 6? Did the counselor say anything to help you?? No words of wisdom to emulate?

    1. No, the therapist was a joke to my 6 year old mind. We played board games and did rorshack tests. I "improved over time" but that could just be the natural cycle of whatever sadness I was experiencing. But I like your approach. And people in my family tend to live a long time too, so it wouldn't exactly be fibbing. Tough stuff, this is.

  4. Kim -

    You did just fine. Explained it right on his level - I think Kushner has some good books on the subject, too.

    1. Even the "um, no. You're not going to die. Um... let's talk about something else" part? ; ) I'll have to check out Kushner. But does he have advice for children or is it just helping adults cope?

  5. We just had a death in the family (my SIL lost a baby at 32 wks.) and I had a heck of a time with Ella. We are raising her without religion so it was a challenge. With backing from the pediatrician, we just hit the issue head on and didn't elaborate. It has created its share of awkward moments including when she says (often and matter-of-factly) "Do you know what? Sophie died!".

  6. My answer probably would have been somewhat different than yours, Kim, in terms of moving on. But not much. I agree with your mom - you did fine, given that you were sucker-punched. It seems to me primarily a matter of providing comfort for, and validation of, such a natural fear. That's obviously what you tried to do. It's pretty hard to explain anything abstract or spiritual to kids at that age, of course - hence Deb telling Matt that "God is like the sun" and Matt responding (budding scientist that he was even at that age), "You mean God is a gas?" In other words, I wouldn't claim to that we did any better as parents.

    One thing you have going for you, IMHO, is that Caleb is growing up in rural Africa. The bad news is that, as you have blogged so eloquently, this means exposure to much more death, often unnecessary death. But the good news is that people on this continent generally are much better able to cope with this stage of life, in healthier ways than many Americans.

  7. Don't "the experts" say that you give your kids as much information as they want at the moment? So if Caleb had wanted to know more, he could've asked more questions because if there's one thing three-year-olds are REALLY good at, it's questions. So okay, he'll ask again, probably when you least expect (peeing, naked in the shower, serving dinner to Important People), and you'll again try to find the answers that make sense at that moment. And as commenters said, living with a more realistic & open experience of death, while painful, can also help C. to see death as not fearful but organic. Or so one hopes. ...

  8. Geez it's hard.

    On a lighter note, last year when my grandad died and I told the kids I was flying back to Australia for the funeral, they asked what a funeral was and on being told, Rufus goes "So, you're going back to Australia to help grandma dig the hole?" Not quite, mate.

  9. I sympathize with this. My four year old likes to spring death or divorce traps on me at random intervals (both are big, thankfully abstract, concepts she is working through this year).

    I try to avoid promising not to die, since it's not a promise anyone can keep. I tell my daughter that everyone will die someday, including me and her, but people usually die when they are very old and I expect us to live a very long life. She knows that sometimes younger people die if they get very sick or have an accident and when it happens it's very, very sad. She gets a little upset about the idea of death sometimes, but I remind her that death is a natural part of life, everyone does it, and it's mostly sad for those left behind. Definitely a big idea for kids to take on board but I always feel like straightforward, honest and not dwelling too much is the right way to go.