Explaining the unexplainable
Parenting Mistake #529: Last week, I promised my four-year-old daughter that we could visit Grandma Joanie and Grandpa Roger “soon”.
This is not only misleading, it’s impossible. My parents – Joanie and Roger – died before she was born. In fact, both of my kids are named for my parents. But I haven’t known how to introduce this concept, so I’ve spent the past four years diverting my kids’ attention or saying vague things about my parents like, “They’re very far away” and “They would love to play with you.”
I’m not sure what made me step over the threshold into Blatant Lie-ville last week, but as soon as I made that promise, I knew it would haunt me. My daughter sniffs out lies instantly and remembers where I put her half-eaten chocolates five months after Halloween. There was no way she was going to forget about this trip to see my dead parents.
“So I said something a little silly…” I reported to my therapist the next Monday morning. She listened to my whole story, waited for me to peter out, and then just asked, “Why?”
“You mean why did I say ‘soon’? Or why did I say ‘far away’? Or why…”
“Why didn’t you just tell her they died?”
“I guess I didn’t know if she could handle it.”
We then picked apart all the ways I could talk about the Great Beyond. I could say it was a huge pajama party in the sky or a land of eternal ice cream and fairies
– though that would lead to a lot more unfulfillable promises. I knew I didn’t want to talk about death in terms of getting sick or going to sleep – too scary. I also couldn’t wrap my head around a vision of heaven.
Truth is, I don’t know what happens after death and I don’t think we’re supposed to know, but I was scared of telling my daughter that it’s all a mystery. I also knew if I pretended to have some answer, I’d be making it worse for both of us.
Saturday morning, while my son (age 2) was busy with cartoons and my daughter was drawing hearts with her new markers, we had a conversation that went like this:
“Hey, remember when I said we could go visit Grandma Joanie and Grandpa Roger?”
“Well, I was wrong. We actually can’t. Because they died a long time ago.”
My daughter looked at my husband and me with a huge smile on her face, like we were telling her a joke. Then she laughed, “No they didn’t!”
“Yes, they did,” I continued. “It was a long time ago though. Just like when your goldfish died. And afterwards they became invisible but we can think of them and they can think of us whenever we want to. Some people say it’s really fun after we die and some people say it’s really quiet and nobody really knows but – "
She cut me off with a shrug. “Okay.” Then she asked for a stapler to put all of her new hearts into a book.
“If you have any questions, or you want to talk about it, we can do that any time,” my husband added.
“Okay,” she said, looking at us like we were seriously cutting into her art time.
So it was not traumatic, nor a huge awakening, but I think it was successful. Though I know this is just the beginning of this discussion, I’m so grateful to be over that first hurdle. From here on out, I can say truly we know just about the same amount.