“Why are these big rocks covering them?” he asked me, as though someone had put the gravestone there to hold my grandparents under the earth.
“They help you and I to find the place where their bodies are buried,” I told him.
“Where are they? Have they turned to dust yet? Why can’t I see them?”
My last grandmother died a year before Declan was born. My grandfather five years before that. He knows them from pictures and stories.
“They’re buried six feet below here. Inside of a casket – a big wooden box with… pillows.”
“But why can’t I see them?”
“Most people don’t like to be remembered the way they look when they’re dead and turning into dust — they want to be remembered the way they looked when they were alive, like they look in the pictures we have.”
When I went to a parent education session about sex, death and lying in early spring of this year, the teachers warned me that age 4 is when these issues come calling. Don’t offer him a bunch of information about it, they suggested. But when the questions come, be honest and answer them. If you make stuff up because you don’t want to worry or upset them, they’ll eventually find out. Better to be with them through the hard feelings instead of thinking we need to protect them from them. Better to be compassionate and someone they can trust.
It took Dec all of a month after turning four before the questions began this summer. We had big tears before bedtime for two weeks in a row when the thought of my ill stepfather (Dec calls him grandfafa), dying left him breathless. And the questions… Does it hurt when you die? When will grandfafa die? Will I have to die when grandfafa dies?
For weeks, it continued to emerge at all hours. We’d be talking about kids at play camp in the car, then I’d hear his throat suddenly start to tighten and he’d ask me “why does everything have to die? I don’t want anyone to die, I don’t want things to change.”
I was afraid that science was going to be our foil as the intransigence of these biological truths hit him. I was afraid of the day when his knowledge of black holes and colliding galaxies and dark matter began to merge with an understanding of mortality. How overwhelming to be four and have such a sense of the vastness and forces of space, which often make Earth’s Mother Nature look as ferocious as a gnat.
For a few weeks, that fear felt justified. He was scared about the sun, because he knows it will expand in 4.6 billion years and likely incinerate the Earth, but it was hard to convince him what a long time from now that really is. He came up with complicated methods to save the earth from burning. I tried, gingerly, to explain that we, and no one that we now know will be here when that happens. He worried that the sun could become a black hole until a nice physics student told him it wasn’t big enough to do that. And somewhere in that barrage of constant questions and explanations, he finally drew his own tear-filled conclusion that he will die, too.
But science has actually been our savior though this process. I took the box with my dog Samson’s ashes from the china cabinet and let him examine them, tried to help him understand how much I loved my dog and that I knew it didn’t hurt when he burned because he was dead. We’ve talked about all of the things that dust has helped create – planets, moons, dinosaurs, us. We talk about perennial and annual flowers and how things regenerate. Our cat brought us a dead mouse the other day and I buried it in the yard. For days afterwards he asked me, “is it turning to dust yet?”
We explained heaven and reincarnation as ideas that some people believe in. We told him that death is one of those things that no one understands for certain. He seems to find the greatest comfort in some of the scientific certainties about what happens to a body or a flower or a star, which I honestly didn’t see coming.
He likes to die dramatically, repeatedly on the playground, preferably in slow motion. And we are still constantly addressing questions about what dies, how it dies, how long it takes it to die. I’m sure we’ll be in this process for a long time. But I’m so much more hopeful and less afraid about his capacity to emotionally process these things now.
Last night we were talking about what he dreams his life might be like when he’s older. Do you want to dance? Sell tomatoes? Be a dog doctor? Teach kids? Study the stars? Paint pictures?
(I try not to make a career in science a foregone conclusion. I want him to be comfortable choosing whatever he wants to be.)
Becoming a daddy keeps coming up first on his list.
“Someday, when I die, I’ll be a grandfather, and then I will turn to dust,” he told me. “It’s all part of my journey to become part of everything in the universe.”