“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.