The day that I have dreaded for the last four years came and went.
Sami was in the bath, playing, splashing, the smell of berry-scented shampoo wafting through the air. I run a froggy washcloth over his squirmy little body.
“Do you have a mommy?”
Totally taken off guard. I spouted something about “my mommy being an angel and in heaven,” and though part of me believes that…the other part of me said, you are sugar coating death.
The truth is, that I don’t know how the hell to talk to my four year-old about death.
Hope Edelman has written a wonderful book called Motherless Mothers which does have some good information about age-appropriate ways to discuss death with kids. Allison Gilbert is currently writing a book called Parentless Parents, which I am desperately looking forward to reading.
The problem is that different kids handle things in different ways and no book is going to give me a magical answer as to how to explain to my child that he doesn’t have maternal grandparents.
The next time he asked about my mother, I tried a different approach. I said that “my mommy got very, very, very sick and she died, and she is now an angel in heaven.”
“Where is heaven?” he asked.
“It’s way up in the sky,” I started to say, then I added, “and all around us.”
It creeps in. That sense of isolation, freakishness, aloneness. Not only are my parents dead, Sami’s grandparents, dead, but I never even really had them. Never really knew them. They did not raise me, and my moments with them were few and far between. I will have a few stories, and I will dig for the happy ones. I will not have a long collection of heartwarming stories to share. He will truly never know them, though there are a handful of pictures of my dad holding him when he was about four months old.
In some ways it would just be so much easier to just write my damn book already and turn it over to Sami when he is old enough to deal with it all. “You got questions? Here you go, kid. Read it. I hope it doesn’t make you weep, but it might.”
I regret using the “D” word with Sami as it has caused him some apparent anxiety. I think he equates death with disappearance, which is chillingly accurate. As the child of divorced parents, Mommy and Daddy alternately “disappear” several times a month. Does it feel like death to him?
Sami’s dad emailed me this information today: “On Friday after we left the office in the car, he said out of the blue “daddy, my mommy is dead.” I looked at him in the mirror and “I said no, she went back to your house in DC and you will see her tomorrow.” He insisted on saying “no, she is dead.” I was really shocked and did not understand where this was coming from. I still said “no Sami, she went back home, I promise you.” Then he said, “my mom’s mommy is dead.” I then said, “your mom’s mommy is in heaven and he insisted on saying no she is dead.”
Since then there have been other comments - Sami said “everybody’s dying” the other night, and that his daddy is dying. He begged me not to disappear. I told him, “Mommy never disappears. I’m always here, even if you can’t see me, and I always love you, and you can call me on the phone whenever you want.”
You have to understand that these kinds of conversations bring up tsunamis of unhealed grief in me…pre-verbal, primal kinds of shit. It gets to be too much sometimes. I want to retreat into denial, a time when Sami was too little to understand, to ask questions that force me to wade in these cesspools of grief…still not healed, the stunningly piercing grief, the churning emptiness.
But there is no going back. He will only get smarter, more aware, of things like loss and separation and death. Stuff I don’t want to know from…all the things I work so hard to avoid in life, yet they keep finding me. Interesting, that. All the things I would give limbs to protect him from.
So I will research and think, and try to come up with thoughtful ways to approach death with him. The next time he brings it up, I will be ready. Ready as I can ever be for such conversation. I take each tear as it comes, knowing it needs to be shed.
Welcome to this blog - my chronicle of the illuminating, character-building path of single parenthood. I'm making this up as I go along. My life is my practice, and my five year-old son is my greatest teacher.