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Explaining death to kids

The Dad contemplates his demise

for The Brooklyn Paper
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A family friend died last week and I had to share the news with my teenagers, but I’m still hesitant to talk about death with my kids.

I fear those big, overwhelming questions they ask like “Will I die?” or “Will you die?,” and I shudder at their plea for reassurance: “Dad, promise me you won’t die.”

There’s a promise I can’t keep.

Explaining uncertainty is one my toughest roles as the Dad.

I’m supposed to have the answers and provide security to my kids. But in the face of death or accidents or natural disasters, I can’t in good conscience take an oath that tragedy will avoid our family.

I know parents who can’t bear to bring up the subject at all. My mother-in-law used to raise ducks at her home, but when we arrived for a visit one time, there were no ducks.

When I asked about them, she shushed me and would only say, in front of my girls, the creatures had gone to live somewhere else. In truth, some predator had dined on those web-footed fowl, and grandma didn’t want the children to know. The ducks were never spoken of again.

Other parents use their religion to teach about the end of life.

Each service at our synagogue concludes with a moment when we recall those who have passed, both recently and years before.

My daughters have noticed the little lights next to the memorial plagues with their grandfathers’ names when they are illuminated on the anniversary of their deaths.

These rituals offer a way to organize death in our lives, just as heaven and hell provide a way to think about what happens after this life ends, but the impact of death on the living is a different matter.

My girls have been to a few funerals for older great aunts and uncles. They found them sad, odd, perhaps a little creepy (when the casket was present), but not frightening in any deep, existential way.

But when a friend — who was younger than my wife and the mother of two small children — died last year, they considered death in a more personal way. I relied on reason to discuss what had happened, her illness progressed, treatments failed, and hoped it made sense of the situation for my kids. But I dodged the bigger issues.

Do I really want to tell my children that life is a crapshoot and any one of us could be gone in the morning?

No.

I want to protect them from the fears, the uncertainties, the insecurity of being mortal.

But really, that’s just trying to shield them from life itself. My friend made sure his family knew he loved them every day until his death.

If I teach my girls to love and care for others in spite of the uncertainties of our existence, my answer to the big, scary question is a simple one.

Yes, I will die.

But that won’t stop me from being your Dad every moment I can.

Read The Dad every other Thursday on BrooklynPaper.com.

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