My Fresh Hell
Life in Scribbletown.

As I Lay Dead and Dying

2004-09-01
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s death has come at an interesting time for me. I have recently been plagued with questions about death from Dusty. “How are we dead?” “What happens when you die?” “Where does your body go?”

It’s been at least ten years since I have read Kubler-Ross’s book and it had a strong impact on me, particularly, if I’m remembering correctly, because it was a non-religious view of how we handle death and what it means to us.

But, how exactly do you answer a child’s questions about concepts they can’t really grasp without sugar-coating (lying) it, ignoring the questions, or giving answers that aren’t too scary. I don’t want her to think that I could disappear from the earth the minute her back’s turned, so I hesitate to mention the fact that people die in accidents on a daily basis. And, I don’t have the comfortable, pat religious answers to give since we’re not raising her in a religious household. God doesn’t really enter into the picture (which makes it doubly hard to answer questions like, “What’s a nun?” – she’s a Madeleine fan) but, after talking to a religious friend yesterday, it doesn’t really help. Her son was mad when his great-uncle died because they’d all prayed for him. “How could he die when we prayed for him everyday?” How indeed.

So, I stumble along and talk about how, mostly, people die when they’re very old or very sick or hurt in an accident so bad that they can’t get better. Moving to the country has sped up these inevitable discussions. We inherited a colony of feral cats when we bought our house. All of the females have produced kittens this year (we are currently working with a volunteer group to trap, spay and re-release them all). Unfortunately, one of the cats had a stillborn kitten that Dusty and I came upon on one of our walks to the barn to pet the neighbor’s horses.

“Oh, the little kitten is sleeping! Does it have fur? Why is it wet?” Dusty asked as I ushered her away from the scene. “No, it’s dead.” “How is it dead?”

Lord. Don’t ask me. Sometimes the responsibilities of being a parent are crushing. They make little Red’s 24-hour strictly physical needs not seem so bad after all. A screaming newborn or the Ultimate Questions from a pre-schooler, which do you want to tackle today?

So, since we can’t say, “God has taken the kitten up to heaven, blah blah blah,” because I believe it’s all bullshit and requires just as much explaining as anything else I’ll say, I explain that sometimes things are sick before they’re born and they can’t live. Something goes wrong. You can’t explain merciful death to a four-year-old. And, if you can, please let me know because I’m running out of material here.

Now, though, she wants to know what happens to your body when you die. So I try to explain decomposition without freaking her out. We talk about the compost heap out back and how food rots when it get too old or it sits out too long. And this happens to us when we die and, we’re buried in the ground or burned in a fire (which I didn’t even want to touch at first, figuring this image alone would give her nightmares), and we become nothing but bones. Bones she understands. Compost she understands. But, the questions keep coming. So far, she hasn’t had nightmares but she’s also grappling with the concept of time and what came before she was born and where was she before she was born. History is a puzzler.

When I put her to bed at night and lie on her bed next to her, and she’s got her pink Care Bear in her arms and I’ve got Sock Monkey in mine, and I’ve told her two stories about Frog and Toad or Ernie and Bert or Godzilla and Oscar the Grouch (who are best friends from way back apparently), we talk about all kinds of things in the dark – from glow in the dark pull-ups to death, and the Time Before Dusty. I tell her about naughty things I did as a kid.

”And I wasn’t inside you yet. I wasn’t born,” she says. “No, you weren’t born yet.” “I was nowhere!” she says, as if hitting on the Ultimate Truth. But, even to me that seems impossible. How could there have been a time when she, my wonderful Dusty Trails, was nowhere? My perfect, brilliant child who wants to be a “librarier” one day and puts sticky notes on all her books that she’s “checked out” for us, and a “balleter” the next? How can that be? And one day, she’ll be nowhere again. Just like Kubler-Ross. Just like me. Hopefully, we’ll all be nowhere together.

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Currently reading: “Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Currently listening to: All things Robin Hitchcock. With some Duke Ellington and Bebel Gilberto thrown in.

Currently wishing: We were all dancing to “Trams of Old London” again like we were on Saturday night. Dusty’s got some wicked dance moves.

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3:04 p.m. ::
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