"What, honey, what did you say?"
"Mom, I don't want you to hold me and burn me."
We were in a thrift store. Me and my two living children. I was sifting through the racks, tired from desperation. I needed to find something I can fit into. Something that could accomodate my flabby post-birth body and my swollen grief. Then I heard my younger daughter, then four, say those words--
"Please do not hold me and burn me."
I had to ask her to repeat a few times because I was not sure what she was talking about.
And then suddenly, under that fluorescent lighting of the store and amidst the smell of pre-owned clothing I suddenly realized what she was talking about.
They were with us when we looked at Ferdinand and held him for the last time, before his cremation. She saw me holding him, pressing his hard, frozen body wrapped in a blanket against my chest, saying goodbye. We sang to him together, in that little tiny room without any windows. Then, we drove behind the car of the mortuary guy to the crematorium and they saw him being put in a container and then we said goodbye one more time, and he was cremated.
She was afraid that as my child, I will do the same to her- hold her and then burn her.
I cannot even begin to tell you the feelings that coursed through my body upon the realization. How I held on to the shopping cart to stop myself crumbling to pieces and then leaned over and hugged her and assured her that of course, I would not do that. I told her that we had to cremate her little brother because he was dead.::
Children and death. It seems they deal with it with grace and ease, and then it seems they get all tangled up in the concept and get confused.
My daughter was four then. Not having witnessed the process of death with her own eyes, death was a very abstract concept to her. While we immediately treated Ferdinand's death in an honest and factual manner, she did not understand it. When they came to the hospital to see him after his birth, his battered body wrapped up in a blanket, with an oversized cap pulled over his head, all to make him appear as "normal" as possible, she asked me to show her his hand, the rest of his head, and she asked if he has a tongue. Since she did not see him alive, ever, she did not understand why he is dead. What makes him dead? Will he still have a tongue, a hand, a head?
Then, I guess as she tried to figure it all out in her head, she asked me, weeks after, to not hold her and burn her.
What keeled me was the thought that she felt that I had the power over her. I could hold her and burn her, if I wish to. Except of course, that was not the case. I was also afraid that she thought that I killed her baby brother. I held him and burned him, reduced him to but a small bag of ashes. I spent the days after telling her over and over again that we did not know why Ferdinand died, but he did, and after a person die, there are different ways of dealing with the body, and cremation was what we chose.:::
Now, she is a few months shy of becoming six. I think she sort of gets it now. She asks about whether I will bake a cake for Ferdinand this year, as we did last year. She talks about him being dead but still close to us. She no longer asks that I not hold her and burn her. Recently they both had to draw some pictures of our family as they fill in a family tree. She drew her brother just like any other "normal" person she would draw, while her older sister drew him with wings, the way she always envisions him- flying in the sky above us.
I wish there is an easier way to explain death to children, but it is really so abstract. And another difficult thing to deal with after our baby has died. We read some books about death after Ferdinand died, but I think the one we liked the most and found the most comfort in was the book Lifetimes. It explains about life, living and death in easily understood terms, and at times I find solace, comfort and strength in these ideas. Not always, but at least, some times.
How about you? Did you have to explain death to younger children, or to children of friends and family? How did you do it? What reactions did you get? What made you keel? Was there anything out of children's mouth that had comforted you? Do you have a book you can recommend for children to talk about death?