It’s a discussion that every parent must inevitably have with their child. But how can you make your child understand the gravity of death without emotionally scarring them?
Ever since my two-and-a-half-year-old son Emile could speak, he’s known about death. Or at least he’s known about the word, since his favourite Wizard of Oz song is “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead.” He loves singing it—even cheerfully stretching out the vowels on “deeeaaaad”—and so we let it slide without explaining the concept. It is, after all, an awful heavy concept.
But with parenting you can only let such life lessons slide for so long. Recently, Emile’s great-aunt Lorraine sadly passed away from cancer and so, last weekend, our toddler attended his first funeral.
The thing is, death is never too far from my mind when it comes to my son. Partly because the responsibility of raising him makes me fear my own death in a way I never did prior to becoming a father. But mostly it’s because Emile is named after my grandfather, who died on my sixth birthday.
I have only the vaguest memories of this period—predominantly involving the “second birthday” I received from my present-bearing relatives when we flew from the west coast to Montreal for the funeral. But my parents didn’t bring me to the service itself, instead leaving me and my then-three-year-old cousin with a babysitter rather than bring us to the synagogue.
In hindsight, I’m not sure that keeping me away from the funeral was the best decision as attending may have helped me better understand what had happened. Or maybe not. But Zayde Emile meant a lot to me, still does, and as an adult I do wish that I had participated in this ritual.
So it was never a question of whether or not we would bring Emile, even though two is far too young an age to grasp the permanence of death. But we wanted to pay our respects as a family and, honestly, the only spark of cheer at a funeral is watching the youngest generation cheerfully toddle about in their tiny dresses and mini-suits. It’s a reminder that, even in the midst of mourning, life goes on.
We decided not only to bring Emile to the funeral but to also talk to him about death. My wife said right off the bat—and I couldn’t have agreed more—that we should avoid euphemisms like “passed away” or, even worse, “gone away.” We didn’t want him to worry that, when he went to sleep, he might not wake up or that, when we were gone, we might not return.
It’s hard to gauge reactions with a child, and every one is different. E constantly surprises us with his ability to understand complex ideas, and yet death is something that has always stymied even adult comprehension—hence, religion. It would have been much easier if we were religious, of course. We could simply say that Lorraine had gone up to heaven to be with God. But that fluffy-cloud fallacy is not something we plan to pass on, even if it makes things like death seem less scary.
We didn’t want to frighten him, but we also didn’t want to overly shield him. Death is a fact of life and, we felt, should be explained as gently as possible despite much (but by no means all) online parent chatter in favour of keeping little kids away from funerals.
So as Emile munched away on a bahn mi sandwich and swigged from his stainless-steel Spiderman bottle, we told him that his great-aunt had died—that death meant she wasn’t here anymore, and wouldn’t be coming back. That a funeral is a ceremony where we can say goodbye to her. I asked if he understood, and he said, “Yes.” But then he asked, “What’s a ceremony?”
We told him that people would be sad—children are incredibly emotionally intuitive, so advance warning was a must—and that once the service started he would have to be quiet. That latter instruction proved as difficult as one might imagine. He clung to us during the visitation portion, affected by the heightened emotions in the room. And, as the service started, he sat still for a short while, his eyes rapt on the priest, but once another child started making noise, he started, too. He wasn’t loud, but the room was very quiet. Then he started fidgeting.
I took him to a backroom where he could still watch Lorraine’s son give a moving eulogy but was out of earshot of the mourners. Eventually, Emile’s four-year-old cousin also left the pews and the pair wandered the funeral home, getting into quiet mischief until I sat them both on my lap and read them a Little Golden Book. Then, after the service concluded, we all went downstairs for mini-sandwiches.
When we got back in the car, he climbed into his car seat and said, brightly, “That was fun.” Guess he didn’t get it. He certainly understood how sad everyone was, but his understanding of death, this inevitable event that so many of us fear so deeply, didn’t seem to have deepened.
So it was just a coincidence, albeit a poignant one, that when we returned home Emile started singing “Don’t Be Afraid” from Yo Gabba Gabba.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” he cooed to no one in particular in his soft, high pitch. “I am right here and I will help you. Don’t be afraid, it’s okay.”