One of my mother’s closest friends in our apartment block passed away a few weeks ago. She was hale and hearty, 70, had no major ailments to speak of and died of a massive heart attack, rather quickly.
Re was home when it all unfolded. The call coming in, my mother’s sudden whiteness of face, her mourning, the flurry of activity in the building, the arrival of the ambulance, the visitors – Re saw it all from our window, intrigued by the goings on.
“What happened to naani’s friend, mamma?”
“She died.” I have figured that the best way to do it is say it like it is.
“Where are they taking her?” he asked.
Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to talking about cremation, so I lied. “They are going to bury her, so no one can disturb her.”
“But what if insects and snakes bite her inside the mud?” He wasn’t going to give up.
Re is almost six, but he had his first encounter with death two years ago when our cat Nadia died of an acute kidney disease. I had, at that time addressed the subject of death without euphemisms, after much conflict within, but now when I look back, I feel I did the right thing.
I thought the questions would come then, but they started coming much later. Suddenly, there is an onslaught of them. And there is much talk about death.
“May be we should have told Nadia we can’t live without her, then she wouldn’t have died. May be naani should have also told her friend she can’t live without her!”
There was more.
“Will you also die, mamma?”
“Yes, I will. We all will.”
He is suddenly very worried about the inevitability of death, but I feel he is the better for it. I remember my first encounter with death. I was eight I think, and one of my uncles passed away rather suddenly. The Tamil euphemism for death is ‘gone away’ and that’s what my parents used for a long time and I never understood its full meaning until much later, when I was grieving over my cats, my grandma and many others.
I often get questions in my inbox which border on the lines of child-counseling, and sometimes I wonder how much do I really know to be able to answer them. One such question was from a gentleman who was unsure if talking to his child about his mother’s death was the right thing to do. I shared my experience with him, and I hope I was of some help.
There is this beautiful book called Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie and Robery Ingpen to explain death to children. It explains, quite simply that there is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. And that all living things die. I used the book to read to Re post Nadia’s death. I still go back to it every now and then. There is also Casey Rislov’s recent book Love is Forever, illustrated by Rachel Balsaits. It’s a story of Little Owl, who loves her Grandfather Owl very much, and how she, with the help of her parents and baby brother, deals with the sadness of her grandfather’s death by learning to keep his love alive forever.
I think children understand death and grief much more than we give them credit for. It gives them closure, it makes things finite and it is also a rite of passage. You can never insulate your children fully from death. If it’s not a family member, it could be a pet, a friend’s grandparent, or even an accident on the road. You cannot shelter them from it, because then, they will always be in denial. They see it around them all the time, and they probably have internalized it even before you thought they were ready.
Maybe if you love someone a lot, it may be a good thing to tell them that you can’t live without them. But the next time you talk about death, make sure you use the D word. They will be grateful to you some day.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 8th June, 2015)