Amid the hustle-and-bustle of a weekend visiting family, I find myself sitting at the kitchen table next to my 4-year-old (going on 14-year-old) niece. Stumbling upon a grown-up-phone left on the table, she reaches out as her smile stretches and balls up her cheeks in excitement of her discovery, her eyes not so much asking permission as persuading me that this is all okay. I sit next to her and watch in awe as she demonstrates both dexterity and understanding in navigating through a series of apps. Eventually, she finds her way to the photos and cycles through, tapping on those that catch her interest. There are several from the weekend and many from past adventures: little silhouettes standing in front of brightly decorated trees, glowing smiles with a sandy beach backdrop, the bright-eyed success of firmly standing atop ice skates or of scoring a goal in driveway hockey. Little squares of captured moments, ear-to-ear grins and silly faces shared with her cousins.
There are much older photos as well, and in a zealous scroll to the bottom of the album, my niece taps the small square that holds a little girl wrapped in a yellow blanket.
“Is this Josie?” she asks.
“No, that is Lydie,” I say.
She continues to scroll through the pictures and eventually finds another little girl, this time wrapped in a rainbow blanket.
“Is this Lydie, too?” she inquires.
“That is Josie, on the day she was born.” I answer.
My niece stares at the photo for a moment and then looks up at me over her tiny pink-framed glasses and with inquisitive eyes says “She didn’t die?”
Tucked behind a string of houses and overlooking a small Ontario corn field is a cemetery whose entrance is lined with a short row of trees. Counting the second from the right and the smallest in the row, is a tree with a green plaque that holds my daughter’s name. Walking over to this small tree, we lay out a blanket and begin to pass out the snacks and water bottles that make up our family picnic. And when the cheese and crackers are gone, we take the time to walk the grounds and visit the graves of my wife’s family in numbers that are much too high. The little ones run over and point to the headstone carving of the family’s patriarchal farm and then weave in and out of legs as the adults share short stories of uncles gone much too soon. They play with the tractors and trucks left for the young children that are no longer with us and they pick fresh flowers to place at the roots of the small trees that bud each spring for the babies that we desperately miss.
Death is no stranger to our conversation.
Regardless of the frequent opportunities, I struggle to frame the discussion. Death, of course, does not follow a prescribed timeline, it does not bend to logic or will, it is not fair. Not everyone young will grow old. Far too many times I linger in the anxiety of the subject matter, lost at the beginning of the conversation, pen and mouth idle to find even the first word to console a heartbroken friend, or to answer an inquisitive 4-year-old.
My niece’s question has snuck up on me and I almost dismiss it as silly at first. Just moments before, she was seated across the table from her 1 year-old cousin, sharing juicy smiles as they ate clementines. But I quickly realize that the question is, in fact, not silly—nor it is morose. It is simply the beginning of a long and complicated topic, and one that our family will continue to discuss.
“No” I reply, attempting to match the level of earnestness in her question. “No, she didn’t die.”
Do you have conversations on death and dying with your family, young and old? How does the conversation start, and how is it maintained?