Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Circles: What I want my son to know about death


Last winter when a friend was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, friends were asked to send mail. I sat down with Max at the dining room table with a few blank sheets of paper and a pile of crayons.
“Do you want to make a drawing for our friend? He’s not feeling well,” I asked Max.

“Sure!” he said. He grabbed a crayon and made a few wide circles on the paper. “Circles help you feel better,” he said.

“I don’t want to die,” Max said to me yesterday as I buckled the straps on his car seat. He wore his camouflage costume from last Halloween, his face serious under the floppy green and brown hat.

“I know, Maxie. Nobody wants to die,” I said in a soft voice.

“I’m never, ever going to die,” he said.

  I could think of nothing to say, so I kissed his nose and closed the door as gently as I could.

At our friend’s ceremony on Sunday, people told stories about him. I hadn’t known him very well, and I soaked in the stories. I heard of his generosity, how much he adored his wife, and his lifelong fascination with turtles.

After the stories, the few hundred of us, dressed in bright colors per his wife’s request, stood in a field of grass in a huge circle. We rubbed our hands together while thinking of our friend’s energy. The friction of our palms created heat, and we raised our hands towards the empty sky to send him on his way.

 “I’m never ever going to die, right?” Max asked the other day. I was parking the car so we could go to the playground.
“Let’s just go have fun,” Scott said. I looked at Scott. “He’s four years old. He doesn’t need to know that we all die,” he said. I nodded my head. We headed towards the brightly colored playground.

When my brother died when I was 24, I spent a lot of time sitting in rooms with other grieving people. I heard about their husbands, mothers and children who had died. We sat in circles and told each other’s stories. The details and relationships were different, but the emotions were the same. “I feel like I’m going crazy,” someone would say. I stared at the candle in the middle of the room and I listened and nodded.

Sometimes I shared. I talked about how scared I was that more people I loved would die. I talked about how much I worried about my parents. How I couldn’t relate to my friends anymore because they were worrying about things young people worried about, like dating and college and cool shoes. Meanwhile I just sat on my parents’ porch in the dark. I blew smoke towards the stars and looked into all that air, hoping for a sign.

An early memory. I am four or five. I am standing in my backyard blowing bubbles. I lift my face up to watch them float, round and iridescent. The edges of the bubbles shimmer pink and blue as they rise and pop. And there is something about the colors and the empty sky that makes me think of my mom’s friend Gail who died. Something about all that shimmer and sky. And I thought that Gail was there somehow in those bubbles, in the slippery colors, lifting and disappearing. I was grateful for the crunch of the small pebbles beneath my feet to steady me.

“Is he dead now?” Max asked the other night when I came home from the ceremony for our friend. We laid in Max’s bed, the jewel-toned glow of Christmas lights on his wall illuminating his skin.

“Yes, he is,” I said.

“So, he’s down?” he said.

I paused. “I guess so, Maxie.”

“So, his bones are out?”

Another pause. “Well, when people die, they don’t need their bones anymore.”

“Oh,” he said. He smiled at me. “Mama, can you please tell me about when me and Daddy and Papa went to the Red Claws game?”

“Sure,” I said.

I huddled close and told him what I knew.


Maxie, I believe in telling the truth about death. I know that with these big questions, I am supposed to let you take the lead. I am supposed to give simple answers, and not tell more than you ask for. But when you say, “I’m never, ever going to die, right?” I am stumped. I know all too well that there are no guarantees, that parents lose their children without notice, that the universe doesn’t play fair.

I could say, “I think you are going to live for a very, very long time.”

I won’t tell you that even the thought of you and Violet dying as very, very old people with gnarled limbs and misty eyes and terrible, loose skin makes me hold my breath. That every night, I ask that you two outlive Daddy and I. I ask for you to be safe and healthy and happy, and I picture you both encircled in warm, amber-toned protective light.

That whenever I spot a penny on a sidewalk, I pick it up and think of my brother. I smile and put the cool, round coin in my pocket. That I always find pennies at just the right time.

That for the decade before you were born, I wrote about and talked about and worked around death. I believed that most of what we need to know about life can be found when we sidle up to death. But when I had you and Violet, I got scared and superstitious and quiet about death. That I am still scared and superstitious, but the other day when all those people lifted their hands to the sky, I started to remember what I've been trying to forget.

That someone at the ceremony for our friend talked about telling her children about death and what happens. She said that she believes when we die, we burst off and merge with the hearts and minds of the people who love us. Whatever else happens, I know that much is true. When I heard that, it reminded me of those bubbles popping, and how somehow, those glittering colors and light must go somewhere.

But Maxie, maybe you already know all of this. After all, you told me, “Circles help you feel better.” You were right. 

 How do you talk about death with your children?

Photo Credits: Mosaic: Michael & Christa Richert

Bubbles: Przemyslaw 'env1ro' Szczepanski


  1. Beautiful, Lynn. I have many thoughts and am writing them up on my blog, but the gist of it is: we don't duck any question about death. Animals die all the time and we choose to cohabitate with a whole bunch of them. So death has been a topic for us since Addie was very small. We emphasize that the creature or person who has passed doesn't see what we see, doesn't walk as we walk, but DOES live on in our hearts or memories. Tim is an atheist so I have to couch the idea of souls going to heaven with "some people believe..." but I am adopting the idea of heaven as our energy being with our loved ones all the time (as suggested by the woman at Greg's memorial).

    And yes, Addie knows that we will all die, and you can't know when. But I have promised her that I will take good care of my body and will stick around as long as possible. And then will watch her from her heart. And when she is a tween I will let her know that I WILL haunt her if she makes bad choices. 'Cause that's good parenting, right there.

  2. Thank you Andrea. That is beautiful. I don't believe in ducking the questions either; my lovely boy caught me off guard. Death is a part of life, a really hard, important part, and I am not going to lie to my kids about it, for the same reason that I really can't stand telling them about Santa Claus-- because I worry it will be hard later when they find out the truth.

    I love your very thoughtful comments to Addie. So honest and so kind.

  3. I hear you, I often think "why is my kid thinking about this stuff?!" Not just about the death that isn't playdates and My Little Pony. And then I remember I used to think about it all, too, all the time, and developed some not-so-great anxious coping mechanisms. SO I might just be hyper-vigilant about talking about the hard stuff.

    Am I hypocritical in hyping Santa, though? I hadn't thought about the long term repercussions because it's FUN. Oops!

  4. Andrea, I can really relate to what you said about anxious coping mechanisms due to all those intense thoughts and feelings. I think sensitive kiddos really need parents who they feel safe talking to.

    I don't think it's hypocritical about Santa-- it's a personal preference. I don't eat meat (with occasional bacon relapse) but I don't really care if people around me do. Know what I mean?

    Mostly, I think that if we tell our kids the truth most of the time, we are doing fine.

  5. That feels like one of the most profound & beautiful things I have ever read.... Really beyond words of how deep you are, and how talented at expressing it. I hope this is published and deeply appreciated by both writers and lay people one day. In our younger days, I am sure one of us would have made a joke about lay people. :-) In any case, Max saying, "So, his bones are out?" is...!!!!!! In any case, this was an incredible passage to read. Thank you so much for writing it and sharing it, Lynn.

    3 days this week, I rodedown to the river at nightfall, really drawn to go down there, to cool off because the days were hot (and I don't have AC)(:-)). On the 3rd night, I finally stopped and sat on one of the benchesI ride by daily, seeing other people occupyin them, having their "moment". Well this week it was my turn, to sit and look at the beauty of the fading light on the river...and cry, uncontrolably. Cry for the difficulty my Dad went through, for loosing him...for the difficulty in the past in my relationship with my sister, and how much I suffered from that for many years. I Cried for the many very lonely years where I felt too mentally ill & embaressed about my poor state of functioning to let more than a handful of people know me at all. And cry for tthe most deeply felt, profound relief that I was able to regenerate, and turn the Huge page. This new phase of my life is one in which I feel whole a lot of the time, and where I can connect with myself & with other people fully. Anyhow, it was one of those overwhelming moments of life where it is all just too much, in a good way. The moment ended when I drunk guy stopped to hit on me, but then saw that I was crying and blowing my nose on a reusable Winco bag. :-) He asked me if I was ok, and you know what! I was! Am!

    Anyways Lynn, thank you for your beautiful, moving , funny writing, and for creating a space for me to connect with you. I love you!

  6. Oh Paula, thank you for your lovely words!

    Hugs to you Paula. Thank you for being such an open, honest person. I really believe that doing so gives other people permission to be more themselves. I love that you had that moment at the river, and how perfectly imperfect that it ended with a drunk guy hitting on you!

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I love you too Paula!