The concept of death can be very difficult for young children to deal with. My grandmother died a few weeks ago, and every since, we have had an almost daily barrage of questions from Aleita concerning Grandma Dot's passing. It is understandable and expected that a four-year old would naturally have a lot of questions concerning death. I think that as adults, we sometimes forget how foreign and abstract the concept of death seems to children. At their age, they can’t imagine that they aren’t going to live forever.
We went through this process with Maggie a few years ago when Chris's grandmother died. Maggie was about the age that Aleita is now at the time. For weeks afterward, we dealt with frequent inquiries about what had happened to Grandma Lillian. Of course Aleita was only about a year and a half old at the time, so she has no memory of the event. Maggie did really well in dealing with Grandma Dot’s passing - - she is old enough to at least understand the concept of getting old and dying. Aleita on the other hand….maybe not so much.
I decided not to have the children attend my grandmother’s visitation at the funeral home because I felt the evening would be too long for them. I also wanted to be able to greet family and friends who came to pay their respects appropriately and not be completely distracted by two bored, restless kids running around and getting loud. Chris and I instead opted to just have them go with us to the funeral the following day. We had done our best to prepare the kids for what was going to happen. Maggie did fairly well - - I think it was a little surreal for her to see Grandma Dot lying there in the casket, but she seemed to take the whole thing in stride.
Aleita on the other hand, was completed flabbergasted to see Grandma Dot lying there in the front of the room for everyone to see. As soon as we got close enough to the casket that she could see her, she looked at me in complete shock and declared, “SHE’S STILL HERE!” We are church-goin’ folk, so Aleita has been schooled about the idea of dying and going to heaven since she was born. When we talked to her about Grandma Dot dying, we told her that she was in heaven. Aleita took one look at her lying there in the casket and decided that we were big liars. We took a few minutes to clarify that Grandma’s soul was indeed in heaven, but that her body stays here on earth.
As we drove to the cemetery from the funeral home, we tried our best to explain what was going to happen next. I apparently used a bad choice of words because I told her that we were going to put Grandma’s body underneath the ground. She said, “but I’m wearing a dress!” It took only a few more questions from her for me to realize that she thought that upon arrival at the cemetery, all the funeral-goers were going to hop out of their cars with shovels and set to work in putting Grandma six feet under. I quickly elucidated that there would be other people who would do the actual digging and be putting the casket in the ground - - we would just say some prayers and tell her goodbye one last time. I think she was slightly disappointed to learn that she wouldn’t actually have more involvement in a process that involved the digging of dirt.
So of course since Grandma's passing, we have had lots of questions concerning death and dying. At first, Aleita's primary concern seemed to be focused on whether or not she would be checking out anytime soon. We assured her that Grandma Dot was old and nothing would be happening to her until she was very, very old. It’s been a little difficult for her to accept that everyone dies eventually - - that it is a natural part of life. She is discontented enough right now with the whole idea of death that she has vowed to live forever. I told her that I hope that works out for her.
Aleita’s daycare teacher told us that last week, Aleita was sitting at her table working on her art project when one of the other kids started talking about going to his grandma’s house after school. She said Aleita looked up briefly from her coloring and declared, “My grandma died and her soul went to heaven, but her body is still here on earth. Somebody buried her under the ground.” Her teacher said that without another word or any fanfare, she went right back to her coloring. She said that the other kid who had been talking about going to grandma’s house just walked away, looking a little confused. Perhaps Aleita will enlighten him one of these days.