"The concept of death is complex and will be difficult for young children to understand," I read in a book entitled, "Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Loved One."
This statement strikes me as true, but almost unnecessary. It reminds me of when I taught 7th grade English for a year. I was a new teacher and was thrown into it a couple of weeks before the school year began. Because of that, I think I overcompensated a little bit by trying to show the kids that I knew what I was doing. I remember meeting with one little boy's mom at the parent/teacher conference, and she smiled as she told me what he had told her about me. Joseph said "She seems like she's trying to be strict, but actually she's just nice." So...he saw through me.
And so it is with the above statement. I feel like that's the psychologists and professionals trying to approach the overwhelming topic of death with an air of professionalism, authority. But I think I see through them.
Difficult for young children to understand?- I believe it is difficult for all of us no? As adults we have a few more tools to work with than the children. We have intellect- we understand that the body can stop functioning, we understand the basic causes. We also have had a lot more time to become desensitized, and a lot more busyness to keep us under the illusion- that hey, maybe that day isn't coming.
I am perfectly ready to admit that Dan's death comes to me without precedent in my life as well. I am confused, lost. Never has my partner in life disappeared from the planet before. I imagine I see him all the time; I believe he is still just away and I must push through; I can make no leap from the living Dan I conjure up walking around the apartment or lying in bed with me- to the shell of remains that is buried in a cemetery I don't remember how to get to.
I don't want to push away those child-like sensibilities and say that I get this. Those sensibilities are quite useful and like children often do- they point us to simple truths we have forgotten.
When I was a small child, I was determined to become a scientist like my father, but not just any scientist. My secret goal was to create a serum that would cure what seemed to me a cruel disease inflicting the entire human race: death. It seemed completely conceivable to me and I was certain this cure would be obtained before any of my loved ones passed from this world, including my pet gerbil. But I was particularly concerned with my parents because they were already a lot older than I was. I can still remember drawing my mother to my bedside at night, as I buried my warm, tear-stained 8-year-old face in her flannel nightgown because I couldn’t imagine life without her. She comforted me by telling me it would be a long, long time before mommy and daddy left. Somehow, this reply failed to satisfy.
Through a child’s glossy eyes, mortality seems stark and unnatural. Should a child be convinced of its naturalness?
During my 20's I spent most of my time trying to figure out what I wanted to do career-wise. "What am I meant to do?" "What's my calling?" These thoughts are the strange luxury of the younger generations. And so I took the Myers-Briggs and all those other tests where you figure out your personality type and what you're good at; I read many books, and I attended seminars. And do you know what a lot of those sources told me to do? They told me to go back to my childhood dreams. To think about what it was I used to want to do when I was a small child. Because there I would find a place untouched by worldly concerns/ambitions or pressures. In childhood's innocence, I could find my answers.
Now I have my own child. Like many mothers, eating can be a struggle. Audrey's a fairly good eater, and one thing I try not to do is force her to eat. I give her good choices, and I feel if she's hungry - she'll eat. My approach, I've found, is actually well-supported and I've read that she is actually more in tune with her body's hunger and dietary needs at this age, than she probably ever will be as an adult. Of course. She doesn't know anything about dieting or weight gain. She doesn't label one food "good" and another "bad. And I've noticed that if she has a cold, she doesn't drink her milk- which is said to add to congestion. I've even noticed the couple of times she's been constipated, she's asked for fruit or applesauce.
The other thing that is striking about little children is their inability to hide our fallen nature. In "The Confessions," St. Augustine said something like, if we left two babies alone, they would kill each other. I have had to teach Audrey to share- her first instinct was to hoard and keep things for herself alone. In this way we are of course socialized and able to live here on this planet together. And as adults, we get pretty good at hiding that stuff. But just a quick look at the evening news and it's obvious that we can not hide it all. If we want to discover our true nature- both good and bad- time spent with a child- will show you both.
Now these are just a few examples off the top of my head, I'm sure there are many more. We seem to rely on childhood's innocence as an authority on certain subjects. The innocence we find there leads us to truths we've lost as we entered a busy world of daily concerns.
So, while I understand that Audrey's mind cannot comprehend her father's new and permanent absence, and while I will help her as she grows to get some kind of hold on it, I hope she never finds she "understands" death or thinks that I do. I hope that in matters of truth, she will always be
like a little child.
"I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 18.3