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Tragedy at a Tender Age

Children and their deeper wisdom.

As a parent, you can never plan for when your beloved children may experience trauma.

You can only hope that what you’ve been teaching them moment by moment about life, love, change, fear, and even death will land at the most important times.

Ariane de Bonvoisin
Source: Ariane de Bonvoisin

It was a few days before Christmas. We were in a safari lodge in South Africa called Kwa Marikame. My husband, my 5-year-old son, and I had spent the late afternoon watching four big and boisterous elephants at the watering hole, shower each other with water, throw mud to cool themselves off, and then have a little tantrum.

We had heard from other people about a braai (BBQ) in the bush, so we all made our way to the lobby to sign up for that. The main pool was right by the reception area, but at 6 PM, from the lack of noise, it didn’t seem to be busy. The truth is I didn’t look that way.

(Something I still go over in my head and wish I had.) My son had noticed a woman making crepes and wanted one. Since it was the holidays, I acquiesced, even though it was right before dinner. Lemon and sugar. Not Nutella.

What followed in the precious minutes after that is every parent’s worst nightmare. We heard screaming around the pool. I thought someone had been bitten by a snake or a spider and was jumping in the pool. Sadly, it was far worse than that. We suddenly noticed a small body floating toward the shallow end. Face down. Fully dressed in blue shorts and a red top.

Alfie, my husband, jumped over the ledge and helped the father who had just dragged his boy out of the water onto the grass. The two of them started CPR immediately, before two Australian ICU nurses arrived and took over. Soon, a prayer circle of probably 20 people formed. Every race, nationality, and age was represented.

The fact that Everest, my son, was witnessing this for himself was not something I was prepared for. A boy. His own age. Not breathing. Not moving. I took his hand and told him we should walk back to our cabin. He was full of questions:

Is the boy going to die?

Is God going to take the boy home?

Is he suffering?

As we walked back, he started saying prayers. Loudly. Courageously. Dear God, please help that boy. Please, may he breathe again. Please help his parents. We prayed to every and all spiritual beings. God. Buddha. Ganesh. Mary. Jesus. Quan Yin. His guardian angels. We sang songs. I was conscious of managing my own state of shock, while my son was making conclusions about what could be his first traumatic moment and memory.

He was quiet and went inward. I wanted to honor his experience and not change it or make it better than it was. This was the first time he had come this close to facing death right in front of him.

Alfie came back an hour later with the sad news that the boy hadn’t made it. They tried for 40 minutes to revive him and when the paramedics arrived, he was declared dead. We could have hidden this from our son, and it crossed my mind that maybe we should, but he surely would have felt it in our energy. And we always speak of telling the truth at home, no matter how painful. So we told him. The boy had died. His name was Junior. He was 4 years old. Barely a year younger than him.

Everest suggested we pray for his soul. That it may quickly go to the light. And that we pray for his parents. (His poor father had left him for a few minutes to also get him a crepe. His Mom had stayed in Johannesburg for work we later found out.)

In the days that followed, we were all in some state of shock. Everest had the easiest time talking about Junior and reminding us of him. Alfie grieved in his own silent way. I tried to make sense of it all, through the mind, which never brings any relief.

Tears did.

All I can say is that when my son did witness it, he was able to go into deeper wisdom, one he’d hopefully been learning from how we lived day by day.

One not based on fear, but on love and being connected to all other children of the world.

One based on acceptance of what is. That life also includes really hard times.

One where despite the trauma and pain of what happened, life was meant for living, that he could still laugh the next day, still get in the pool and have in his heart, the memory of a little boy he never knew.

We still talk about Junior. He has become part of our shared tapestry as a family. I can now see how as a parent, I’ve focused on giving my son good memories, fun adventures. But actually these harder moments are important in shaping him and preparing him for the messiness and sacredness of life.

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