Last week Nick’s Great Uncle died. He was the Grandfather figure in Nick’s life, but he was 97, a widower, and had recently moved into a nursing home so there was an overarching sense of comfort and joy in his peaceful passing.
The visitation was last Friday night. Because babysitters on a weekend in December book out about two years in advance, we decided to take the girls with us.
Our kids have occasionally asked questions about death which I’ve always tried to navigate as carefully as possible. There’s a fine line between explaining to a child that death is a certainty in life and having three kids who think every meal will be their last. I knew I needed to do a little research on the best way to broach the subject because this time I would be incorporating visual aids.
By the way, this was all contrary to Nick’s plan – to simply “show up to the funeral home – they won’t understand what is going on.” Be on the lookout for his parenting book, Imminent Therapy, coming soon to book stores everywhere.
Having been their primary caregiver for the past five years I assured him this was a bad idea. These kids are very observant. I can tell you with confidence that they will immediately sniff out anything unusual in a room, like oh, say a corpse.
I decided to wait until Friday morning, to give our talk enough time to sink in but not too much time that the explanation was forgotten before the actual event.
I sat before them as they ate their breakfast.
“Girls, I need to talk to you about Uncle Bill.”
“Is it his birthday?” Ellie asked excitedly, milk dribbling down her chin.
*lump forms in throat, realizes this is going to be harder than she thought*
“Well, no. Girls, Uncle Bill died.”
You could have heard a fly fart. Wide eyes. Open mouths with spoonfuls of cereal frozen mid-air. The only thing that dared move was the wheels turning in their brains, which were about to hit overload and start smoking out their ears. The articles I read all suggested to give minimal information and pause to let them process, giving them plenty of opportunity to ask questions.
Also I stopped talking here because that was as far as I had practiced.
After what felt like an eternity, Ellie broke the silence.
“Was there blood?”
“No, honey. Uncle Bill was very old and he just went to sleep and died.”
“When I get very old I am NEVER going to sleep.”
The other two nodded and resumed eating their Honey Nut Cheerios; apparently this satisfied the question and answer session.
As much as I would have loved to have left it here, with them living the rest of their lives on nothing but coffee and speed, I knew I needed to explain the logistics about what was going to happen that night. Which involved bodies and souls and heaven and defining eternity and breaking down things that are too complex and mysterious for even most adults to grasp.
“… so it will just be his body, not his soul,” I finished.
“Just his body?” Ellie questioned.
“Yes. Just his body.”
She scrunched up her face. “Well what do they do with his head?”
Kids. They’ll getcha every time on a technicality.
Overall, that night everything went fine. We said goodbye to a kind soul who lived a long and blessed life, now reunited with his wife and two of his six children.
The girls were naturally timid when we arrived, but quickly acclimated. Maybe a little too well. I knew it was time to go when I looked up in horror to find Hadley standing on the kneeler playing “Lime in the Coconut” on Uncle Bill’s stomach. Luckily he didn’t seem to mind.
In the end, I don’t know if they are more or less confused than when I tried to answer their questions, or if they still think avoiding sleep is the way not to end up headless in a box.
All I know is God help me when I have to tell them about sex.