My kids enjoy having a hand in decorating our home. What that means is that scraps of cardboard become signs throughout the house. There is a scrap of paper denoting the napping to be done in the bedroom. There is a scrap of paper asking if we enjoy coffee — on the cabinet where I keep my coffee. There is a sign on their playroom that I refuse to let them take down that simply states, “No bad gas in.”
This was before my daughter knew how to spell “guys,” and it still amuses me every time I walk by.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when I’d sit in our backyard in a daze after coming back from shopping and seeing the lines for paper towels, my son drew a strange XY-style graph with a green zigzag going up. “This,” he declared, “is the news about the coronavirus; see, it’s getting better.” He had already brought tape, and he imperiously slapped it on the wall next to the door of my bedroom before I could respond. I see it every day and think about how he just wanted to help how he could.
When I had the newest sign pushed into my hands, it was a stick figure with tears and a smaller stick figure inside a rectangle. On the bottom, using his sister’s writing skills but signing his name himself, he had wanted to write: “Mama this is your dad.” Spoiler: My dad died 14 years ago.
Taken aback, I asked him why he drew this, and he shrugged. But my daughter took the chance to ask, “What do you think he would have wanted us to call him?” I told her I didn’t know, and it made me sad. She nodded, and they both scampered away.
My son has been asking about death in small ways over the last few months. It’s right on cue developmentally, but it’s still hard to discuss, especially at the end of the day. He snuck in, right before bedtime, the classic, “What happens after we die?”
I replied with, “Oh, there are a lot of thoughts about that. No one really knows for sure,” to buy time before I could conceive a simple soliloquy about death for a 5-year-old audience, but he broke in with, “Not even scientists?”
“Not even them,” I said. “What do you think happens?”
“Nothing,” he said and burrowed into his covers, ending the conversation.
I realized I might need a bigger boat for Q&A on Death: Round Two and reached out to my friend, the Cille and Ron Williams Endowed Chair of Early Childhood Education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Associate Professor Marisa Macy, Ph.D.
I covertly wanted to know how much I might be scarring my son, so I asked, “What are ways that adults can make missteps in talking to their children about death?”
“Children are resilient,” Marisa said. “Ignoring their concerns or questions might be a misstep because having a responsive social environment from adults in their life — and maybe peers too — will help their social-emotional development. Children benefit from a responsive caregiver; someone they can go to with difficult questions. Children might have questions or want to talk about loss.”
She continued, “When my daughter was about 4 years old, she faced the death of her pet goldfish. She was confused at first. She had a lot of questions and concerns. Responding to her needs and creating a supportive space to talk was helpful for her. I wanted her to know that she could talk with me about anything that was bothering her. ”
Sometimes I wonder if showing your hand as an adult who does not know All the Things weakens your role as your children’s barrier against the world. But then, I think that showing your humanity in not knowing, in making mistakes and being the person who will help them find answers is just as valuable. I’m not interested in bedtime fables that preach a knowing. Instead, I prefer those that show life as it is — fragile, beautiful and sometimes unknowable until we live it.
Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She is also the Executive Director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and can be contacted at [email protected] To find out more about Cassie McClure and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.