Reaching "The End"

What do you do when your kids figure out that life ends?

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How do you cushion their fragile hearts from an awareness that even adults struggle to come to terms with: the knowledge and fear of death? How do you help them understand and accept their own mortality and the eventual death of those they love?

A recent thread on the main PSP list dealt with the first appearance of mortality for many families: a pet who makes that one-way trip to the vet. The diversity of posts illustrated the many ways there are to handle this situation. The conversation can take as many forms as there are families, and the “right” approach will be different for each child, though certain generalities can be useful:

--Keep it simple.

--Don’t over-explain.

--Give children a way to understand and deal on their own terms, in their own time.

We found ourselves in this situation a few years ago when our son was about three and a half (our daughter, nearing her first birthday, remained blissfully unaware and unaffected). Lyle, our cat—a runty little rascal if ever there was one—had made it to 13 or so before a sudden decline necessitated “the final act of love.” At the time, we didn’t go into any great detail; we just said something matter-of-fact to the effect that Lyle had died but he had lived a good life, and offered to answer any questions Bobby might have. Then we resumed crying in the bathroom. He took it in stride, no questions or tears—kids at that age can be so out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

A few months later, out of the blue, our son (now turned 4, I think) suddenly asked, "Why did Lyle die?" To answer, I thought of Bobby’s book obsession. I explained that lives are like stories: each one has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Lyle had come to the end of his life, so his story ended. But just like with a favorite book that we can pull off the shelf any time we want and look again through the pages, we can review our memories of his life and think about how much we loved him and how much fun we had together. This seemed to satisfy Bobby, and he resumed his previous conversation (about how many cookies he was going to eat when he got home).

A year or so later, a walk through Green-Wood Cemetery got him wondering about what kind of place it was, and I expanded on the analogy, telling him that cemeteries are like libraries where people go to remember and think about their favorite life stories, or the stories of their favorite lives. That seemed to work pretty well—until he started doing the math and noticing that some of the markers were for infants, at which point we moved on quickly.

Fortunately for owners of infirm small mammals, for most young kids death is too abstract to lead to eschatological questions. You don't have to worry that much about the kid making the connection that this cat died, so therefore I'll die, and my parents will die, and what’s the meaning of it all? It just doesn't register on that level. It was only when Bobby was about five and a half that he started drawing those inferences and asking the dreaded questions—"Will this dog die? Do all dogs die? Can you bring them back to life? Mercifully, he left off before getting to humans, perhaps on some level sensing what the answers would be.

My own father—“Papa” to my kids—has been seriously ill in recent years, and although he’s now long enough in remission that we’ve begun to breathe again, the experience made me intensely aware of the hard conversations that will inevitably come, as they do for every family in its time and in its way. I hope that at such moments, the literary analogy still bears some meaning and comfort—for myself, as much as for Bobby and his sister. Yet again, a lesson I’ve tried to impart to the kids ends up being one that I desperately need to learn myself. Isn’t it always the way?

Dan Janzen

See also the PSP website on "Death of a Pet"