I am totally screwing up the conversation with Mary Grace about death.
It started when her classmate's mom died. The conversation has paused, since then, but it hasn't really stopped. It probably never will - I know my parents and I still talk about death (it's probably still hard for my parents). Mary Grace is aware of death, now. For example, when characters in her shows say the words "die" and "dying" (and it's kind of astonishing how often they do in children's shows!) they just bounced off of her blissfully oblivious little head before, but she hears them now. She hears those words on the news. She notices when we talk about people in our lives who have died (my aunt's father-in-law died, and we will attend his wake this weekend in Grammaland, and I was making arrangements for someone to watch the kids, because they didn't know him well enough to go, and she heard me on the phone). She asks me questions.
I know this is normal stuff for a child her age, but it's still so hard.
I don't want to lie to her, but I don't want to scare her.
So far, I've told her the following, in small bits and pieces:
About the process: You know how your toys have batteries? Well, people kind of have batteries too. And when you get really old, or sometimes if you get really hurt or really sick, those batteries can stop working. And just like your toys don't do anything, anymore, after their batteries run out, people don't move or talk or eat or do anything anymore after they've died.
To give perspective: It's not the sort of sick that you and Claire get when you have a pukey flu or when you have a cold - in order to die you have to be really, really sick or really, really hurt. That's why Mommy and Daddy tell you to stay out of the street, by the way, a car hitting someone can hurt them really, really badly.
To teach empathy: Generally people are very old when they die, but sometimes people die before they get very old, like Marly's mom. That's why it's important to love each other and take care of each other every day. Because sometimes people die when no one expects them to, and that's really hard.
To comfort: Mommy and Daddy probably won't die until we're very very old. My mom and dad are still alive, and so are Daddy's mom and dad, right? Mommy and Daddy are grown ups. And chances are that you will be much older and more grown up than Mommy is before you have to worry about Mommy or Daddy dying. (And now I have to watch myself, saying things like "I'm so old!" when I realize that it's has been 17 years since I was 17 years old. Hearing me say that could completely freak her out, now.)
To reassure: You probably won't die until you're very old, either.
To make her feel like she has some power and control: Part of the reason that Mommy and Daddy have been working very hard at being healthier (weight loss is another frequent topic in this house - they've watched their parents lose over 100 pounds in half a year, and they've noticed) is so that we can keep our bodies healthy to live even longer. And we take good care of you and Claire, too - we take you to the doctor and we feed you fruits and vegetables so that you can be healthy and strong and live a very long time. What are some things that you think you could to do keep yourself healthy, and to keep yourself safe? (Eat vegetables, stay out of the street, etc.)
And, because she goes to a Christian preschool: A lot of people think you get to go to Heaven and be with God when you die. That is a nice thing to think, isn't it? Thankfully, she hasn't asked me (yet) if I believe that. I did say, Do you remember what it was like before you were born? Me neither. But I think that's probably what it's like for people after they die. My own religious beliefs could fill an entire blog, so I don't want to go into it other than to say that I can't really tell her for sure "you go to heaven" without feeling like a big hypocrite. I don't honestly know that the whole heaven thing is true, and neither does anyone else. The best I can do without feeling like a fraud is "no one knows what happens when we die, but here are some things that some people have guessed."
Times like these, it would be a lot easier to be a religious person.
Now remember, I'm giving this to her in small bites, over the course of several months, but I still feel like I'm about 6 grade levels ahead of her with all this.
I need help. Anyone out there have any suggestions?
(I borrowed the image from someone else's blog, but they probably don't own the IP, either, so I guess it's ok. I'm very unsure of how all that works. I did check Wikimedia Commons, and I tried to use IMDB.com's copy of the above photo, but it didn't work.)