Matters of Life and Death

10.22.07: Learning to deal with the hard questions


In the past few weeks, it's become suddenly clear that Charlie fully understands the English language. He's not speaking with words so much—so far, his repertoire includes "mama," "dada," "bo, bo, bo" (boat), and "nana" (banana), plus a little sign language for "more" and "all done." But, he's communicating with us in so many other new ways—by pointing to things, by squealing with delight when we understand what he wants, and by following our verbal instructions: "Get the ball, Charlie!, Charlie, wave bye-bye!"

It's like we're forging new lines of communication with him every day. And yet, at the same time, Will and I are suddenly like fish out of water with Julia. Lately, she's been asking the hard questions—questions that pop into the conversation when we least expect them. Questions that usually catch me so off guard that I find myself blurting out some ridiculous answer in the heat of the moment and later retreating to consult a book, or another parent, or to Google something like "how to speak to a child about death" or "what to tell a three-year-old about sex." Julia's no longer satisfied with the simple answer. A few months ago, we'd have conversations like:

"Mama, where do babies come from?"

"They grow in their mama's bellies, Juje."

"Oh, OK. What's for dinner, mama?"

And now, they're more like:

"Mama, where do babies come from?"

"They grow in their mama's bellies, Juje."

"I know, mama! But, how do they get there?"

[Insert moment of panic where I blurt out something ridiculous and then realize later what I should have said.]

Lately, Julia's been obsessed with death. It's a topic that's been brewing for months now, probably because of a few choice Disney movies that, in hindsight, were maybe not such a great idea. Like Charlotte's Web. And, The Lion King. For months, we've been getting questions like:

"Mama, what if Charlie got eaten by a coyote?"

"Juje, that would never happen. We would never let that happen."

[Which used to satisfy Julia, but now we get the insistent follow-up:]

"But, mama, what if it did?!"

And then:

"Mama, what if you and Daddy died and Charlie and I were all alone?"

"Juje, that's not going to happen. Mommy and Daddy aren't going anywhere. We're going to stay here with you forever and for always."

Julia used to accept this response. But now, she's suddenly making back-up plans:

"Mama, when you die, and when I'm still a baby, I want to get a new mommy."

[This, when I'm driving her to preschool, comes completely out of the blue and nearly causes me to drive off the road and kill us all.]

"What? No, Juje. Mama's not going to die. What made you think that, Juje?"

"When people get really old, they die."

"Well, that's true, Juje. Everyone dies eventually. But, I'm not that old. I won't be that old for a long, long, long, long, long, long, time. I'm going to stay right here with you."

"I just know that you're going to die soon, mama."

This has all had Will and me scrambling, Googling, reading, consulting, putting our heads together to figure out what we should say to Julia in these moments. We've been worried about the fact that our three-year-old seems so focused on death. Our instinct has been to avoid the topic altogether, to shift her attention, to distract her with lighter topics. Last week, when we all went to a reception for our sister-in-law's father, we decided not to say anything to Julia about death and instead said: "We're going to have lunch with Grandpa and Bubbe and Uncle Fun, and Auntie M., and cousin Liam!" But I've since learned that this was maybe the wrong thing to do. That we should actually be using these "teachable moments" to talk openly and honestly with Julia about life and death, in the simplest way we can. (On a suggestion from Jeanne, I'm going to pick up a copy of The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, by Leo Buscaglia.)' 

In a couple weeks, I'm taking Julia and Charlie to visit my family in Ohio, where Julia will surely notice the absence of the family dog, who died this week, and where she'll be meeting her brand new baby cousin for the very first time. There are bound to be questions. And I hope I'll be standing by with the right answers.

In the meantime, I'm trying to take a page from the subtle ways we're communicating with Charlie: with our facial expressions and our body language; by our tone and demeanor. Because the thing that I most want to communicate to Julia is that she is safe, secure, and loved—and that we'll always be here for her and her brother, no matter what.

Join's Managing Editor Dana Rousmaniere each week as she chronicles life with a new baby.

Read the next entry: 10.29.07: This I Know