My sister was asked a very interesting question today, by her five year old son. E is a very smart, very, shall I say, rambunctious kid. He went through a lot when he was born (I was the only one, aside from the many nurses and two doctors, in the room). He was 15 weeks early and born weight a hefty (I say that sarcastically) 1 pound 10 ounces. But he fought his way out of the hospital and into health.
The question was asked as they drove by a graveyard. He’d been looking out the window and he asked, “Mommy, what is a grave for? And why are all those flowers on them?”
She was floored, as I’m sure anyone else would be. She did the best she could and explained that people die, and they bury them and put up a headstone and put flowers on them, so they have a place to go and remember the one they lost. She said he was happy with the explanation, and I assume he had no more questions. Yet.
I think she did as best job she could at explaining someone so difficult when put on the spot. An even bigger fear, she says, is his inevitable question of “Why do people die?”. She said she’d much prefer “the talk” over explaining death to a five year old.
When I heard her story, I thought, “But how DO you explain death to a five year old?” As anyone who hopes to have children one day, I anticipate this question with some unease, and a bit of curiosity. And I also think, “How would one explain death to a child, without the inclusion of God?”
Let me explain: I will freely and openly admit to all who care to listen, that for a long time now, I have been “on the fence” about religion. I’ve had my qualms with it for my own foolish and emotionally fueled reasons. I’ve also been “shown the light” in my own private moments. There are many reasons, some of which I may get into at later dates, but mainly I am confused and disappointed.
Because of my religious backwardness (I say that meaning I am not backward because of my religion, but I am backward about it, phrasing may need some attention) I am apprehensive about a religiously inclusive home. If someone, usually a member of the “Sunday rush” at my day job, asks me if I am a Christian or if I think I’m going to heaven (which is entirely too personal a question for our “Customer/retail worker relationship”) I may hesitate. I’m a good person who’s just unsure of what to believe. So, when it comes down to explaining to a child why people die, my initial thoughts, regardless of how far advanced my religiosity may be at the time, is to keep God out of the response.
I know several people I know would say, “Because God didn’t want to wait any longer, and needed them in Heaven with him.” Or “Because God thinks we needed them more.” I had a dear family friend pass away many years ago, and the general explanation was “God needed her in heaven to take care of all the animals.”
I think the best, most straight-forward way to do it, without confusing a vulnerable child would be to avoid the simple answers, like “Because it was meant to be”. I’ve always hated that, really. Sorry, this person whom you loved very much is gone and you’ll never see them again, no matter how much you need them, miss them, or want them to be here. It was meant to be.
And if you try to explain aging, won’t that just confuse them too? I have a grandmother whose almost 90, which I think is a miracle, by God’s hands or not, but she’s outlived her parents, and all 29475930 of her brothers and sisters. Yet, she’s had health scare after health scare, and is currently living in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. There are children that die from cancer or diseases they were born with. They die young, having never really lived. Why do people die?
We die because we cannot live forever. I’m sure science will make a change in that dilemma, though not in my lifetime, ironically. We are not born with a timer that says how long we’ve got. And we don’t get a chance to plead with Death, make our case to stay on earth and finish what we started. We die because we do.
Maybe “taking God out” of the inevitable explanation you’ll have to give your child, regardless of religiosity, is the simplest way. After all, they’re children, and they will find a question to ask about your answer.
How would you do it, if God forbid, your child lost someone near and dear?
I think I’ll just have people tell my children “She signed that great publishing contract in the sky!”