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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Mummy, when are you going to die?"

One of the most difficult questions a parent will ever be asked.

When the 8yo first asked, “Mummy, when are you going to die?” I was taken aback. He was probably about 3 years of age at the time. From memory, we had just visited my sister’s grave and I had explained to him just that morning how his Aunty Valda had died. So really, it shouldn’t have come as a shock at all. But it did.

I can’t quite recall the exact conversation that followed that day, but I think I replied along the lines of, “Well, I don’t know - Aunty Valda was young, but many, many people live until they’re very old.”

To which he replied, “How old will you be when you die? Will you live to one hundred years old?”

“Well…” I began, and then said, “Oh look! There’s a playground. Do you want to go play?”

I know. Chicken. My fob off didn’t last long. He was quite persistent with his questions about death (including the one question you never want to hear or know the answer to: “When am I going to die?”) and I answered them as honestly and as thoughtfully as I could. Finally I had to say, “Let’s not talk about it anymore, honey. Let’s talk about something happy.”

Looking back, I don’t think I needed to get quite so deep and meaningful with the 8yr old at the time. It was probably too much for him to take in.

By the time the 6yr old started the same line of questioning, I had gotten good at saying, “Oh, I’ll probably live to 100, and you’ll be so sick of me by then!” I kept it as light-hearted as I could. The 6yr old went through a very difficult few months some time back, worrying about death. He worried about me dying. He worried about dying himself, and he would often get upset about it all. It’s a difficult time for them; coming to the realisation that their parents won’t be around forever. And that neither will they. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, as we were walking back from soccer, the 6yr old said, “I wish that you’d had [the 8yr old] when you were 20; and me when you were 21; and [the 3yr old] when you were 23.”

“Why?” I asked, although I instinctively knew where the conversation was going.

“Because then you wouldn’t die before I have a house of my own.”

I understand this thought process. When I was in primary school, a bunch of kids were talking one day in the playground about how old their mums were. Most were in their 30s. I kept quiet. I had already noticed my Mum was older than most mums. I went home and asked my Mum how old she actually was? When she told me she was 50-something, I gasped. “You’re not going to die are you?” I asked, horrified at the thought. My Mum just laughed and said, “No, honey. I’m not going anywhere yet!”

At the time, although I wasn’t 100% convinced that my Mum was right, I did feel some reassurance in her confident reply.

I assured the 6yr old that his Grandma was 10 years older than what I was when she had me, and that she’d seen me grow up, marry his Dad, have 3 boys and have my own house, and I finished with, “And Grandma’s still here!” He seemed quite pleased with that idea, and promptly dropped the subject. Phew.

It breaks my heart that my kids worry about me not being around (God knows, I worry about it myself sometimes)! I guess the best thing to do is to assure them as best I can, and not go in to too many details.

The 3yr old asked me about death recently, and I thought, ‘Here we go again.’ But at least this time, I’ve got my answers sorted. I still don’t like talking about it, but I’ve now accepted that it’s a subject that can’t be avoided.

How about you? Have you had your children, or someone else’s child ask you about death? How do you handle it? Any advice you can share?


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