I know my title above sounds like a big downer. But really, this discussion I had with Jonah, my 3 year old was not. It was slightly surreal, sure. It was a little sad. And it was like talking with a relentless force. But it wasn’t a downer.
We were at the Volunteer Park playground in Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Jonah likes to play in the brush near the fence on the south side of the park boundary. On the other side of the fence is an early Seattle cemetery (not actively used today, I believe). In doing some online research just now, I discovered its formal name is Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery. For a really cool virtual tour of the cemetery (which is where the image was retrieved from), visit VRSeattle.com.
Jonah walked up to the fence, pointed at the cemetary headstones and said: “What dose rocks, Daddy?” I told him it was a cemetery and you know what his next question was…to which I replied: “It’s a place where they put the bodies of people who’ve died.” “Why dey die, Daddy?” “Well, mostly people get very old and sometimes their bodies don’t work so well when they get very old. That’s how people die.” “You die, Daddy?” “Yes, Jonah. I’m going to die (and seeing the next thought forming in his brain, I tried to head off the next line of questioning–unsuccessfully of course). But it won’t happen for many, many years. And by then you’re going to be a grown man, maybe with a wife and family of your own. So you don’t need to worry about it.” “Why you die, Daddy?” “Well, I’ll probably get very old someday.” “Daddy, when you die, Jonah die too?” “No, sweetie. Remember when we saw the video of the dead whale at the Museum of Natural History and I told you that when an old animal dies, another baby animal comes to take its place. Well, you’ll take my place when I die.” “Daddy, Mommy die too?” “Yes, sweetie, Mommy will die too. But she loves you very much and plans to be with you for ages and ages. In fact, it’s so far away you can’t even count the time till that happens.” Now he started a new line of questioning: “Daddy, when you die you go dere (pointing at the cemetery)?” “I don’t know, Jonah. I don’t think that cemetery takes any more people. I also don’t know if we’ll still be living here. I might want to be buried with my Daddy who died in Florida.” “Daddy, you & Mommy die, be buried dere (pointing at the cemetery)?” The same response as above. “Daddy, when you die Jonah be sad.” “Yes, I know you’ll be sad. But Daddy doesn’t want to die and leave Jonah. It’s just something that happens to everyone whether they want it to or not.” You guessed it–the next question was: “Daddy, Jonah die?” “Yes, Jonah you’ll die too someday, but it won’t be for many, many years and it’s so far away you shouldn’t even worry about it.”
This of course went on interminably. He seemed to repeat each question he asked three times at least and was never fully satisfied with any answer I gave. I was alternately horrified and fascinated by his obssesive interest in the subject. I was also amazed that he was interested at so young an age. I remember I had a morbid fascination with the subject when I was young, but I’m pretty sure I was older than three.
Ever since this conversation, he repeats these same questions every day, usually more than once a day. That’s kids! For a more in depth psychological discussion of this subject, go to hospicenet.org’s Talking To Children About Death.