"Mommy, do we know when we will die?"
"No, honey, we don't."
"Oh, but you're not going to die? And Daddy? I still have a Mommy and Daddy."
"Yes, dear. you still have us..."
"And you're not going to die, are you? I am lucky. Why do some people not know when they will die?"
"Sweetie, everything dies, like the plants during winter."
"Oh, but can we grow back, like chickens?"
Good one, mom, telling her once upon a time that chickens "grow back" and so never get sad.
What do you do when your four year old asks questions like this? Questions that are no more complex than the very questions we ask ourselves, questions that pose the very confusion and injustice that an event like death can cause.
"Does anything know when it will die?"
"Why? Why don't we know when we will die?"
"I don't know, honey, I just don't know."
And I don't. I have no idea. I have no pat answer, no grand answer, no nice answer. To me, Death is cruel and a natural, albeit final, end to our extremely precious lives. I have found in my adult life that Death is no respecter of persons, belief systems, age, or diet. Death does not care for logic or sentiment, in fact, Death is the very nothingness that negates such silly mortal ideals and reminds us of our puny existence and ultimate hopelessness of our ego.
"Mommy, I don't want to die."
"I know, honey, I don't either."
"Mommy, when I get older, I just want to get rid of the darkness inside me that wants me to die. Then, I will never die and I can just live with you!"
Well, then. I am glad the conversation ended on such a futuristic note. I did not pursue the subject, as wise mothers never do, and never will I bring it up. Like heaven. Sure, we said the family dog went to heaven, that other family members went to heaven, but as far as indoctrinating my daughter with fantasy goes, I can mention heaven in none other than poetic terms and for reasons none other than laziness. Of course I will say the dog went to heaven, that's what everyone else says. I am not about to tell my four year old about the very true, very real impending anxiety that the bleakness of death provides and the fact that we do not know what happens after we die.
To broach the existential reality of Death's impersonal "touch" and its deafeningly silent victims with a four year old is entirely unethical and inappropriate, at best. But to be in conversation with said four year old, who asks such seemingly adult, but agelessly human, questions about this eternal source of human sadness is a bit much for a depressed, anxious, existentially-pained adult. I may give a canned answer of a utopian happy place, but it is no more truthful to me than when I tell that same four year old that Santa lives "at" the North Pole.
When I was three, I remember looking at my beloved Aunt in a casket. All I wanted to do was to touch her, hold her, hear her voice again. I went to hug her, only to be reprimanded by my father and met by the sobs of my mother. What was the deal? Why couldn't I touch her? All I wanted to do was touch her, and I couldn't. Because it wasn't really her anymore, I suppose. Or because it was inappropriate (most likely) to put a toddler in a casket to hug her most favorite adult (even more than mom, it's true, I remember, because Auntie gave me Cheetos) who no longer possessed any characteristics of a live, conscious being.
Death is depressing and as I grow older, it gets no easier, the questions remain the same and the answers merely choices between psychologically comforting storytelling or realistic, finite facts with perhaps a sliver of romantic yearnings for a mystical conscious that unites us all. But, just like my daughter, all I can do is hope I encounter it as infrequently as possible. And hope that, if nothing else, I can get rid of the darkness that makes me fear it so.