Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Just the facts?

Death. We encounter it every day, we live closer to it every day. At 28, I still can't explain death well to my toddler.

She loves examining each small insect to cross her path. Bending over, touching is inevitable. So we taught her that plants, pets, small children, and insects are fragile. We handle them with our eyes, or very gently with our fingers. It's been a long time since her infant self mangled a mother-in-law's tongue blade.

But I have license to squish the ants marching in from the deck to the dog's empty food bowl?
But the cabbage worms chowing down in mom's garden get plucked and eliminated?
And we surgically remove the squash vine borer?
And mom wants me to pull these plants out of the ground, but not those?

The same day she may request to visit Willowbrook, a wildlife rehabilitation and education center five minutes from our house. Or we may refill the feeder for the cardinals and chickadees. Or I teach her that spiders make great garden friends and they can live in the corners of her playhouse. Or she trails water from her mini watering can as we make the morning rounds.

At first, death was a factual situation to her. Grandma died and lives in heaven with God. We'll see her some day. To my daughter, the husk of a body in the casket bore likeness to a store mannequin, not Grandma. In many ways she gets it. Then we arrived home one day this summer and a naked hatchling lay on our front door sidewalk.

Do I stick to facts: the baby bird died, and doesn't breathe or move any more?
Is it worth speculating on how the hatchling arrived on our front sidewalk: a bird or squirrel killed the hatchling?
Shall I distract her and return to clean up during her nap?
Is this a good time to talk about death for animals and death for people?

In the end, I followed her cue. She stopped and peered at the sidewalk. "Oh no, what happened?"

"The baby bird died. It doesn't breathe or move."

"The baby bird died?" Looking hard and with concentration... but nothing in the body language to indicate she wanted to pick the body up. Then she seemed confused.

"Yes, it did. Baby birds hatch from eggs and they don't look like the birds that eat from our feeder. They have to grow a little and get feathers later."

She shifted gears to our dog at the front window. "Okay. Let's go see Rocky!"

Later that day and the next, my daughter remembered the baby bird with my words, "The baby bird died. It doesn't breathe or move." She added, "Do you remember?"

"Yes, I remember." I am glad for the unexpected moment. I want to live gently in the present, and help her remember loved ones from the past. Looks like we'll take it one encounter at a time, one day at a time.

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