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The Latest Tough Talk With My Five Year Old

Erin Zammett Ruddy

Yesterday Alex and I went to the grocery store together and on the way home we passed a cemetery. That sparked this lovely conversation that I was completely unprepared for. How do you think I handled it?  

ALEX: “Mom is that where Grandma Del died?”

ME: “No, bud, she’s not there.”

ALEX: “Where did she die?”

ME: “You mean where is she buried? She’s at a military cemetery because Papa Barney was in the army during World War II and since they were married she got to be buried there, too.”

 ALEX: “Why would she want to be buried there?”

ME: “So they could be next to each other, babe.”

ALEX: “Do you think they know they’re next to each other?”

ME: “Well, they’re not there, you know that, right? When people die they go to heaven but I think they know that they were buried together, yeah.”

ALEX: “Where did Grandma Del die?”

ME: “In the hospital, bud. She had a heart attack.”

From here I had to explain what a heart attack is and that when people get very very old they sometimes get sick and they die and that Grandma Del lived a great life and was very very old (she wasn’t that old—only 85 and still in great shape, but she wanted to go. My Grandfather had died six weeks earlier and it was really hard on her. I didn’t tell Alex that).

ALEX: “You’ll die before me because I’m little and you’re much older. You’re 35.”

ME: “Dude, I’m 34. And yes, I should die before you, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen, but not until I’m way way way older I hope.”

ALEX: “Like in 35 years, mom?”

ME: “Well, I’d like 60 more years. That would make me almost 95 and I think that’s a great age. And you’d be 65 then and you’d have grandkids so I’d get to live to see my great grandkids, which would be awesome. Sound like a plan?”

ALEX: “Yeah, that’s perfect. And then I’ll die when I’m 95. I hope that happens, mom. Mom, how old was Jesus when he died?”

ME: “Um…Jesus died when he was young, Al.”

ALEX: “Like 34, mom?”

D’oh! Wasn’t Jesus 33? Crap! I can see where he’s going with this. For a second I start telling him that Jesus rose from the dead and then I catch myself—we were almost home, thankfully, and I just wasn’t prepared for the whole nailed-to-the-cross, ressurection talk. Maybe I’ll check out a book for him…or just wait until he starts religion classes. I doubt I'm the best Catholic for the job if you know what I mean. What is with his religious obsession these days? Tis the season, I guess. (PS, I finally made him his potato latkes...more on that later.)

ALEX: “You can say Jesus Christ if you’re talking about him but you can’t say it if you’re mad, right? Well mom, you know that kids can die too. Like 10 year olds.”

ME: “Yeah, Al, anyone can die. It’s not supposed to happen until we’re much older but anyone can die that’s why we need to enjoy every day we have together.”

ALEX: “Like if a man offers you an ice cream cone in the back of his van and then he chops you up with an Ax, right mom?”

ME: “Gheesh, Al, where did you hear that?”

ALEX: “Dad told me that like two years ago. So you never go near van—look mom, a white van! But I don’t think it’s a bad one.—Mom, the ax was invented in 1995, right?”

ME: “Al, the point is you have to use your head and never go with a stranger but it’s not just white vans Al, OK? You need to really be smart and aware of your surroundings and always tell me everything. But you don’t need to be scared of people, OK?”

ALEX: “Yeah, I know mom.”

And then we pulled into our driveway and he bolted out of the car and that was that. Thank God. I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately, as I’m sure we all have been, but this talk still caught me off guard. And it upset me a little. As a cancer patient/survivor it's always hard to talk about my dying because, well, a lot of people die of cancer. And with the recent Newtown tragedy, talking about death with my kid is much more difficult--both because I know how lucky I am to be having just a hypothetical chat and because I immediately think about those families and the talks they must be having. But I don't want to completely sugarcoat things for Alex, either. I think he can handle the truth(ish) and he's super curious which I love and want to foster. I just wish there were some way to be better prepared for this stuff. Especially since you never know how and when kids are going to bring it up. Just another one of the many ways they keep us on our toes, I guess. So, do your kids ask these kinds of questions? How do you handle it?