This exchange happened the other day:
Me: Look! Your friend, W., has a new dog. Isn't she cute?
Grape (visibly alarmed): What happened to Maggie? W.'s old dog?
Me: She died.
Grape (big frown, face crumples): Oh, dear. Why?
Me: Well, Maggie was old and very sick.
Grape (looking as if he might burst into tears): Is that going to happen to Lila?
Me: Hopefully not for a very long time.
Grape: But she will die some day? (with greater urgency) Is Lila going to DIE, Mamma?
Me: Yes, but hopefully not for a very, very long time. Lila should have many good years ahead.
Grape (Pensive silence, sad face, followed by *long* pause, and sudden brightening): What should we name our next dog?
Me: [Face palm.]
I don't remember the moment I realized death was permanent; all I know is I definitely understood by age six. That was when my grandfather and our family dog died within three days of each other. I was certain of three things:
1. Neither grandfather nor dog was coming back.
2. I was very sad about both events, but far more viscerally upset about the dog.
3. I knew it was deeply shameful to be more distraught over the dog, so I did my six-year-old best to hide this fact.
I don't think the Grape gets the death thing yet, which is largely my fault. In my desire to let him be little, he's been sheltered from some of the more unpleasant facts of life and mortality. It's not like we live on a farm where these circle of life mysteries get cleared up easily.
We've also been lucky. (Yes, I'm knocking hard on my wooden desk as I type this). The Grape hasn't lost any immediate family members or close friends.
We've haven't had to cross the "death bridge," so I haven't gone there.
Some of his pals have lost grandparents, and on such occasions, he's asked me why grown-ups are sad. When I explain that so-and-so's Mommy is sad because her mother died, he usually accepts that answer without follow up. If anything, he verifies that the deceased was very, very old.
So I'm pretty sure some connection between advanced age and not living anymore exists in his head.
We've happened upon the odd dead wild animal. I can't figure out if the Grape understands that these unfortunate critters aren't just down for a big sleep. I've also watched him, many times, turn away from the glass-eyed snappers and mackerels packed in ice at the fish counter at the grocery store. His brain doesn't seem to want to go "there," and it seems cruel to force it.
Anyway, he's not invested in a dead squirrel, bird, or mackerel the way he's invested in Lila the Dog, Siren the Cat, Lucy the (Perpetual) Kitten, and various human family members.
On the other hand, I have this nagging feeling that it's high time to level with the Grape.
Lately, I've heard kids on the playground shouting, sometimes gleefully, sometimes angrily, "I'm going to kill you!"
The Grape knows that in our household, such talk is completely unacceptable, and that such utterances on his part rain down severe consequences.
I am confident he knows it's not a nice thing to say.
I suspect the Grape thinks "to kill" means to cause some nonspecific kind of harm, and to assert dominance. When pressed, he says it means "to hurt."
This inability to process the permanence of death is a major reason I'm adamantly opposed to any kind of toy weapons. At four, they know not what they do. Young children's games that reinforce the insane idea that violence can exist without consequence do nothing to create good world citizens.
I doubt the Grape or his pals can wrap their four-year-old minds around the permanence of death, or of killing. When adult minds wrestle with the concept of infinity—if it's human nature to seek boundaries and borders—can a four-year-old understand forever?
The Grape is fast approaching five. If, based on experience, six-year-olds understand what it means to die, I suspect some kind of awakening to that fact will start to happen over the next twelve months.
So maybe this is one area where it's best to let him learn organically, to leave well enough alone, to avoid traumatizing the little guy by explaining unpleasant truths unless and until absolutely necessary.
And I'm starting to understand why some parents quietly replace dead goldfish or parakeets or hamsters. I'm queasy about the idea. I don't have a horse in that particular race, since we don't have any small, cage dwelling pets, but I kind of get the practice now. These parents are desperate to avoid going "there." I still find the replacement practice weird, but now I might just go out and buy some fish.
Because odds are good the fish won't live for years and years. Maybe the Grape should lose a few goldfish before wrangling with the greater bereavements of life.
(Aside: If we do get fish, we will do our best to keep them going as long as possible. Please do not write me hate mail, accusing me of plotting fish murders.)
Or maybe we don't need the fish. Maybe he can just be innocent of death a few months (a year? two?) more, until his brain catches up to the concept.
I want to let him be little as long as possible.