That question about dying…you asked it too soon

Published January 16, 2014 by jay p laughlin
Always her favorite

Always her favorite

Our first trip back to the zoo was a lot of fun. We hit all of ZK’s usual favorites: the carousel ride (which is no longer the “carry-self”), the Komodo dragon, and the Asian elephants. There were, however, some marked changes in her reactions to these. The biggest is that she is no longer enamored with the elephants. While looking at them you could see her shrivel her nose and hear her quick, short breaths of air as she sniffed.

ZK: Elephants are stinky.

Me: Yes, they are very stinky.

ZK: Elephants smell like yucky poo. I want to go see the snakes.

So off we went to find the snakes.

Comparing the pictures of her from today with the ones from last year in the same places really demonstrated how quickly she is growing. It was a bittersweet kind of day in that regard. Part of me wants her to slow that growing just a bit. But being there to experience the little steps in her growing personality and maturity is amazing.

The tone of the bittersweet zoo trip started on our walk to the entrance. A brief conversation that took me completely off-guard started as follows:

ZK: The animals don’t want to get us, do they Papa?

Me: Nooo, they want to stay happy in their homes.

ZK: If they get us, we might die.

Me (with a dropped jaw): That’s very true. But I think we’ll be safe in the zoo.

I should note that our cat, Maceo, died a little over a week ago. As a parent, I don’t think there’s a time when we say we want to introduce the concept of death to our children. Usually, circumstances force that introduction upon us. So at the age of 3, Jenni and I had to have that conversation with her. She’s seems to be taking it well and, obviously, thinking about what it means. And, perhaps, it is easier to learn at this age because comprehension of its permanence comes in small bits every day in questions like “will Maceo come back today?” that are asked on each day.

The conversation continued:

ZK: Because we don’t want to die huh?

Me: No, we don’t want to die.

ZK: Because we don’t want to die together huh? That’s so silly!

Me: That’s right. We don’t want to die together either.

And then…the freight train struck:

ZK: Are you going to die, Papa?

Ho-ly SHIT! In hindsight, perhaps the entire lead up to this question should have warned me that this one might be coming. In my own conception of what ZK is capable of (which is pretty freakin’ huge, I should add) I never imagined that she’d think to ask this question yet. Perhaps, I was just denying it to myself simply because I didn’t want to answer this question yet. Interesting, because the answer is quite simple.

Me (tears practically breaking throught): Yes, sweetheart. I am going to die some day.

ZK: Are you going to die tomorrow?

Me: No, I am not going to die tomorrow.

I should note that there is some ambiguity in the way ZK uses the word tomorrow that I took advantage of here to end the conversation. The her, tomorrow means both the standard meaning of “the day after today” and her personal meaning of “sometime later.” I chose to answer as if she intended to use the standard meaning and left it at that.  In recounting the events of the day to Jenni and her mom, I left this little detail out. When ZK asked if I was going to die, I almost cried. Later that evening I felt that strong sense of sorrow welling up again and felt that, if I spoke the words, I wouldn’t be able to keep my composure.

The timing of the conversation concluded just as we approached to gate attendant and I asked ZK if she wanted to show the lady our pass. She did, of course, and proceeding to tell the attendant about going to see the dragons. However, I felt  that we should have a little fun beforehand given the weight of what we just discussed. (Probably more for my benefit than hers).

Me: Let’s go ride the carousel FIRST!

ZK: O-KAY!

It's no longer a "carry-self"

It’s no longer a “carry-self”

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2 comments on “That question about dying…you asked it too soon

  • My four-year-old has known about death in the abstract for some months, but just last week asked the question about us and him dying someday, too. I tried to answer his questions evenly, but oh yeah, there were tears too. He has asked a little more every day since, and I am trying to emphasize that worrying too much about that takes a lot of joy from this.

    I thought I’d have more time to prepare for the discussion!

    • I’m sorry to hear about the kitty! Even if we didn’t mesh all that well. My dad passed away when Sage was about a year and was with me through the whole process in MD. Ever since, we’ve talked about the idea intermittently. I usually phrase in not why or how or when, but what we do with ourselves until that bell tolls.

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