little boys do not like the taste of death

Today, over at Relaxed Parents, a father had his first talk about death with his three-year-old son.

The son asked the question, “Will I die?” The father answered, “We all die eventually.”  The son chose to disbelieve him.  “I am not going to die,” he said.

Little boys do not like the taste of death.  They spit it out if they can. 

Adults do not like the taste of death either.  For a year, Joan Didion spat death into her napkin, hid it under the table so no one would see.

I remember when Youngest did not like the taste of death. He swallowed it whole when he was four-and-a-half years old and he couldn’t spit it out.


He is drawing  pictures at his little table.  He draws a picture of my father, who died years before he was born.  “This is Mac,” he announces.  Then he scribbles, hard, all over the picture, blocking it out.  “Mac is dead.”  He draws another picture, this time of my mother, who is very much alive.  “This is Rosie.”   He scribbles over this picture, too.  “She is going to die.” 

I can see he is getting upset.  I don’t know how to stop it. 

He draws another picture and immediately scrawls hard across it. “You are going to die.”  He scribbles furiously.  “I am going to die.”  He is crying now. 

“We are all going to die.”

He cries with huge, heaving sobs.  He cries so hard he starts to choke. He gags. I pick him up and run to the bathroom.  He misses the sink and the vomit spills all over the floor.  There are little bits of food I can recognize: pasta and corn.  But no death.  He couldn’t dislodge it.  Death refused to come up.

He keeps on crying.

I can’t thing of anything say, so I carry him outside.  Somehow I think if we are outside, under the sun, it will be better.  If there are trees and earth, it will be better.

I hold him in my arms and rock him as he cries, the way you do with all babies once you have had one of your own. 

He keeps crying.  He can’t stand it, I know that.  He can’t stand having this certain poison inside of him.

I am so worried I consider hauling out the idea of heaven, which I don’t believe in.  But then I think, “Don’t lie.”   I know only one thing.  At this moment I must not lie.

The sun is shining, my baby is crying, and I can’t think of anything to say that is not a lie. 

And then I do.  I know what I am going to say.  I don’t know it if it will work.  Please God make this work.

“Youngest,” I say.  His crying lightens.  He looks at me.  I can tell he is hopeful. He believes in me. 

“It is true that we are all going to die,”  I say, “but there is one thing that does not die.” 

He sighs.  He waits.  He tips his face to me as if I were the sun.

“Love doesn’t die,” I say.  “And when we die, our love doesn’t die.  It goes on and on.”

His little body relaxes in my arms. He gives a hiccup as the tears fall away.   He stops crying.

Love is an antidote and it is enough.


18 thoughts on “little boys do not like the taste of death

  1. Wow, I’m in tears. I read the Didion book just a week or so ago, looking for insight. Did you see her article in today’s NYT?
    We’ve been living with grief in our house the past few months, mostly shielding our two-year-old because she doesn’t know the people who have died. I have wondered if this was a disservice to her, but keep coming back to how difficult and unhelpful it would be to get her to understand that someone she never met is no longer alive. She knows our dog died, or at least that the word “died” applies to why our dog no longer lives with us, and she knows that we miss our dog. She knows I am sad because my friend got hurt. Right now I think this is okay for her, she understands a friend getting hurt. She also thinks this is always why I am sad–very normal, a toddler taking an explanation that fit for one situation and applying it again when she finds a similar situation–but every time she says it when I don’t expect it (when I am sad, for instance, because I stubbed my toe), I realize how much she has taken this information to heart. She needs an explanation for my sadness. But “Mama is sad because her friend died”–at her age, what would that mean?

  2. Jesus. That really hurts to read. That’s very powerful and so honest. One day, dudelet will have the same crisis and I’ll have to remember what you said to Youngest about love. At the moment, the death of my father is just a big cloud of unknowing to him but he knows that the cloud is there.

  3. Dang. I just read that and my phone rang and it was my mom calling to let me know that she and my stepdad are heading out to the hospital for his surgery, 3 aneurisms in his aeorta. Had to sit here and cry for a while. Am grateful that my kids aren’t with me at the moment. What a powerful story.

  4. Poor little kid (not that he’s little any more, of course!) What a sensitive soul. And you’re right, lying to your child at such a sensitive juncture could be terrible in the long run. One project I worked on for a long time was a journal on palliative care. There was one article in particular where the authors noted a difficulty of young end-stage cancer patients. They knew they were dying, but in many cases the adults in their lives were still denying the upcoming death. These kids *wanted* to talk about it, *needed* to talk about it, but the parents would deflect any overtures the kids would make. I had to put that one aside for a while. It just made me so sad.

  5. Sheila, Yes, I did see the article and I loved that book. I’m sorry you have been living with grief. I think that, at two, your daughter is too little to understand. She’ll come to it in her own time.
    (un)relaxeddad, thanks for the inspiration. You know, not all kids go through this crisis, not by a long shot. Plenty of people, as you pointed out on your site, grow up and are still able to spit out all kinds of truths that don’t taste good to them. You have to be acquainted with trauma to have this kind of crisis.
    Oh, The Joys, Take ’em. They worked for my little man.
    kelly, I hope your stepdad’s surgery goes well.
    Imperatrix, I can’t even begin to imagine the pain those parents must experience…

  6. As you know, I have been facing this with my youngest. I liked your suggestion when you first commented on my blog, and now I’ve enjoyed reading about the situation that inspired the suggestion. Thanks for writing this — it’s been on my mind.

  7. Anna: Thanks for asking. It’s gone underground, as Freud would have predicted (Freud would have said it was latent, actually). (He had to be right about something, no?) But Jack’s not crying anymore, so he seems to have made his own peace with it, one way or another. And that’s good.

  8. I judged Post of the Week this week (well, I was one amongst others) and was rooting for this to be number one. It’s brilliant, made me think of being a child and hearing about death – sitting in the back of my mum and dad’s car on the way home from my grandparents house. They had to get a bucket or something out of the boot of the car for me to wretch in.
    I’m so glad you found a nice way of putting it, and that your son has stopped crying now!

  9. Fi, that is amazing for me to hear. And yes, he has stopped crying but he remains a very sensitive and philosophical soul who feels things very deeply.
    Thanks for being my post’s champion!

  10. Wow. An amazing post. It reminded me of a friend of the family, who sadly died very young from breast cancer. When she found out it was terminal she had two small children, and picked a quiet moment in the bath to explain to the youngest, who was about 3, all about dying. He seemed to be taking it all in, nodding, understanding and dealing with it rather well. And then he asked if she would have a snorkel … and she realised he thought they were talking about diving.
    I cried with your baby when I read this. My early memories of death are simply that it seemed unfathomable. It still does, something that happens to pet hamsters and elderly cats, but not to people. But I share your instinct, that being under the sun makes it better. It’s why I prefer burials to cremations.
    I think you did amazingly.

  11. Thanks Stray, unfathomable is really the perfect word, isn’t it? That little boy was on to something with his question about the snorkel – death lives in very deep waters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s