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Parenting Lessons from a Dying Child

I hoisted my daughter off the pavement, perching her on my hip as I brushed the silky gold strands of hair from her eyes. At three, Hannah was already getting too big for me to carry this way, but I needed her reassuring heft to ground me for the conversation we were about to have. Otherwise, I feared, I would simply evaporate into the cloudless June sky. We were walking through pristine gardens toward the entrance to the Halquist Memorial Inpatient Center, a hospice facility where my 16-month-old son had been admitted two days prior.  We had brought Hannah here to say goodbye to her brother.

“This is a special hospital, baby. It is a hospital for people who are about to go to heaven.” The social workers had warned my husband and me to avoid speaking in code when discussing Luke’s condition with Hannah. People died, they weren’t “going to sleep.” Luke was in hospice, not a hospital. I needed to clarify the shorthand we had been using the last couple of days, lest my daughter believe that every time someone she loved went into a hospital, they weren’t coming out. This was especially imperative now, since, two days prior–the very day Luke was admitted to the facility–we confirmed that I’d be in a hospital myself in about nine months, giving birth to our third child.

Hannah’s sweet face twisted into a grimace. Fat tears sprung from her eyes. “Luke’s not going to die, is he, Mommy?” she cried. I was shocked by the speed with which she processed these thoughts: heaven equals death equals grief.  

I looked straight into her sad eyes–we were both crying now. Answer the question that is asked, the hospice social worker had advised. Be direct. Be honest. Be brief.

“Yes sweetie, I think he is.”

Even at the time, I was astounded at my ability to find the words to tell my daughter her baby brother was dying. It felt like the emotional equivalent of the mother who lifts an impossibly heavy object off the child trapped beneath. But although I hope to never endure a similar conversation again, I have followed that social worker’s guidance many times since:  Answer the question that is asked. Children, even at three years old, are remarkably disciplined about asking the question they want answered, and they have an enviable ability to accept that answer at face value.

So, several months later, as my belly swelled with Hannah’s sister growing inside, I followed the same advice when she asked, “Mom, how does the baby get out of your tummy?”  We were crowded into a bathroom stall at a restaurant; I could hear sniggering coming from the next stall over. After a momentary flash of panic that I would have to explain the birds and the bees to my toddler in the bathroom of a Chili’s, I paused, collected my thoughts, and answered the question that was asked.

“I imagine she’ll come out the same way you did–through my vagina.”

Pause. Wait for the coin to drop.

“Does it hurt?

“Yes, but our bodies are made to do it that way. And the doctors help.”

Pause.

“Can I get ice cream?”  

Fast forward a year or so, when that precocious now-five-year-old asked, “If all a man and woman do at a wedding is dance and kiss, how does a baby get made?”  At least we were at home for the conversation this time.

I have employed the answer-the-question-that-is-asked technique on any number of dicey topics.

When visiting Luke’s grave:

Q: “What is this stone for?”

A: “It marks where Luke’s body is buried.”

Q: “So his body is under this dirt?”

A: “Yes, it’s in a coffin under this dirt.”

Q: “But it’s probably just bones and stuff now.”

A: “Yes, probably.”

Q: “Why are you crying?”

A: “I’m sad. I miss Luke.”

And on death more generally:

Q: “Am I going to die?”

A: “Everyone dies sometime, but I think you’ll live for a long time.”

Q: “How do you know?”

A: “Most people live a long time, until they are old.”

Q: “Are you going to die?”

A: “Sometime, but I don’t think it will be for a long while, until you are all grown up yourself.”

Answering the question that is asked is just the first step. The tougher part is fighting the urge to elaborate on that answer once delivered. I think of it as a “full-stop” approach, requiring disciplined conclusiveness: Listen to the question; answer that question and that question only; full stop; wait for the next question. The strategy, when I have employed it successfully, has enabled me to break down complicated, weighty issues into “bite-sized” pieces that are more manageable for a kid’s developing brain to process. It gives the child time to digest the information she has heard and come back for more when she is ready. I have been surprised by the number of times Hannah has returned to a conversation out of the blue hours, even days, later.

I have benefited, too.  This technique enables me to give my kids the answers they seek without imbuing the discussion with my own emotional baggage. Some of our conversations are fraught with emotional triggers, particularly when my girls have questions about their brother.  But answering their question directly and honestly and then waiting, sometimes with gritted teeth, for their next one forces me to follow my child’s lead instead of going down the rabbit hole of my own grief.

It is not an easy approach. (Nor is it foolproof. Religion, I have found, is a topic that doesn’t lend itself to short, declarative statements.) My husband and I want our kids to be thoughtful, well-informed citizens and believe we have an important role to play in their development as such. The “full-stop” approach calls on us to fight the urge to tell more, to explain more. It can feel contradictory to our desire to engage with our children on matters big and small. But anyone who has ever asked their child, “How was school today” and been answered with only a grunt knows the futility of pushing into a conversation when the child isn’t ready.  

When I hear friends fret over initiating “The Sex Talk” with their kids or struggle with how to explain the death of a beloved pet, I sometimes find myself thinking how lucky I am to have cleared those parenting hurdles with relative ease, and to have had such good advice to follow in doing so. These feelings of good fortune are an irony, of course. I doubt any parent would have wanted to come by that advice the way my husband and I did. But although Luke’s life was too short and too hard, it wasn’t a tragedy.  Parenting him was the greatest learning experience of my life. Of course, the pain of missing him sometimes feels unbearable. So whenever one of my daughters asks a question that results in an initial “uh-oh” in my brain, I try to savor it, if just for second. It may be a hard conversation on which we are about to embark, but I know I’m not alone. Luke is right there by my side.

This essay was originally published on The Washington Post’s On Parenting site.