June 12, 2016 by Dadinator
“Dad, did your friend die?”
“He wasn’t exactly my friend, but he was my student for a while”
“Oh, and did he die?”
“Why did he die?”
“He was sick, and he didn’t get better”
I was silently sobbing to myself by the time I got to that last sentence. It was a while ago now, but the memory of standing in that hall with a gaggle of fellow teachers was oddly fresh. A student of mine had passed away after a raft of complex health issues. I didn’t know him well at all, I’d only taught him a handful of times and he didn’t like me. It’s strange though, it doesn’t take much time in the classroom for a student to become one of “your” kids.
And he died. And that was, well, horrible. The day we found out at school and told our classes, many of whom knew him or were his friends with him, we had a lot of trouble doing anything.
“Do what you need to, if you want to be quiet that’s fine, if you want to talk about it, that’s fine too. You might feel sad, you might feel angry, you might feel nothing – and it might change. That’s all okay, we’re here for you.” The words you say to “your” kids in the classroom. They’re good words. Each word was sincere. Each word was inadequate. Each sounding hollow within my own throat, aching with that pain that comes before a sob, as I reflected on the loss of this child. And as I said the words I kept thinking of my own children, I couldn’t help it; and I couldn’t stop it. I tried.
I was back from the funeral the day my son asked me all about it. This sweet little 4 year old who’d heard the word “died” more than once in his short life wanted to know about this boy, about my “friend”, about what it all meant. Asking why. Asking what happened. Asking if it made dad sad.
“Why are you sad?”
“When someone dies everyone who knows them feels sad. Dad is sad about this boy because he taught him, and he was too young. Far too young…”
The Lad understands things stop living. So does his little sister The Lass. We’ve had chickens pass on, and the kids are aware that those chickens have died. They both know that their “Pappa Tony” (my dad) is no longer with us. They know he died. They know that his death still makes dad sad sometimes. They know dad misses his own dad.
We borrowed a book from the library, about how everything lives, and then stops living. All creatures live for different lengths of time, and they die for different reasons. For some reason reading a book about it made us feel more in control of the conversation, if not the concept.
I know more questions will come soon.
“Will you die?” – he has asked that and accepted a simple “yes”.
“Will I die?” – again a simple yes is as far as we got.
“If I died, would you be sad?” I assured him I intend on dying well before he does because even entertaining the possibility makes my heart pound and my eyes water.
I don’t want to simplify it. I don’t want to say someone is “sleeping”. I don’t want to talk about a soul or a spirit or an afterlife that I can’t honestly say I believe in.
I want to talk about how the matter, the particles and atoms, that make us don’t go away when we die. That he matter in our bodies is as old as the universe itself. It’s been inside stars, in space, the ocean in clouds and under the earth. I want to talk about going into the ground, feeding bugs and trees. One day it might find itself inside a star (again), or floating through the void – cosmic dust, waiting to be pulled towards something heavy. Maybe it will make up other living things – even other people – one day as protons and electrons carry on their merry dance, as they have for billions of years….
I want to talk about how we make memories, write words and do good, and it outlasts us. How we are missed, and how we impact the lives of others, who impact the lives of others, who impact the lives of others, who…. well you get the picture.
And I want to talk about how you can believe all that, or believe other stuff instead, and still cry till your eyes and nose burn, your throat tightens and your breath shortens in the face of it all because when people die we get sad, angry and we feel hurt.
I have no idea if it’s the right thing to do. I have no idea of there is a right thing to do. I was 4 when my papous died. I didn’t get it, I doubt I could have. Not really. My son is now 4, and he doesn’t get it either. I don’t know if he can yet.
I’m probably blowing it all out of proportion. For as long as we’ve been able to conceptualise death I imagine parents have had these conversations. My children will make their own discoveries, make their own minds up and they’ll get plenty of advice from others. It’s just one of a long list of concepts that I find myself introducing to these small and highly impressionable humans.
It’s been on my mind lately, that’s all….