I remember when Rhys was five and all his perceptions of Flynn and death changed from statements of fact to questions of why? Rhys was three when Flynn died and had lived with his and our grief for two years. His questions became a transcendence that mirrored our journey of grief and how it had evolved.
Ash has recently turned five. He was born two years after Flynn had died and his experience with death is limited to what he has been told about his brother's death, his paternal grandfather's death and more recently the death of his Great Grandmother when he was only two years old. His understanding of death differs greatly from Rhys's understanding at the same age.
We are very honest with our children, we do not use words like "passed away" or "sleeping." We do not tell them that the people who died were sick, if we can name an illness we do. We have explained the permanence of death as the body ceasing to function and we have tried not to complicate their understanding of death with philosophy until they are ready to conceptualize on their own (our ten year old is there now, but that is another blog).
I will interject here to tell you that although this all sounds good, Landy is known for wanting to give his children all the information in very adult terms. Rhys and Ash are very bright and sometimes that can be misconceived as capable of handling adult concepts, it has backfired many times.
As of late, Ash has become very interested with the topic of death. He has graduated from the kiddie cartoons and now some of his movies have themes with death as a central storyline and obviously our family has experienced death as well.
Due to our honesty, Ash is aware that his Grandfather died from a brain tumor when Landy was only thirteen. He knows that his brother died because he was born too early and was too small to survive and he knows that his Great Grandmother was very old and died due to complications from her age. In working out what this means to him, he retells the stories of these deaths, adding his own twists or changing facts, making the sombre into dramatic tales.
Here is an example of how he recalls what he was told of his Grandfather's death:
"So Grandpa had cancer in his head and it made him sick and so the doctors needed to make him better so they took a saw and they cut off his head to take the cancer out but when they put his head back on he still had cancer and so he was mad and then he died."
We have corrected Ash's version of the story many times, but each time the illness and the death are much more dramatic than the reality.
We were at Disney World when his Great Grandmother died, and it has definitely affected his explanation of how she died:
"Great Grandma was at the top of the castle with Cinderella and then the fireworks went off and Great Grandma fell of the top of the castle down to the ground and SMOOSH, she was dead."
I am sure that if my Grandma could have input she would find this story comical and enjoy the energy that Ash puts into the story.
Losing a brother is the most difficult for Ash to understand, maybe because unknowingly we explain it differently. The death of a child is hard to explain or make sense of and Ash's grasp of Flynn's death becomes internalized in how he talks about it:
"Flynn was born and he was a big person and so he died and then I am going to die because I am becoming a big person too."
When we explain that Flynn was not a big person, he was a tiny baby, Ash wants to know when he will die since he did not die as a baby. Landy tells him that he won't die, but I don't want to mislead Ash so I tell him that we do not know when we will die but that we hope that we all live to be very old. I hoped that would make sense to Ash but the other morning Ash came into our room and this is how the conversation went:
"So will I die tomorrow?"
"We do not know when we will die but we hope you will be much older than tomorrow."
"When will you die? Will you die tomorrow?"
"I hope to be old too, and watch you grow up and I hope that it will be a long time from tomorrow."
"So then not tomorrow?"
"No Ash, not tomorrow."
"Okay, can I have a snack?"
And so we wait for the next round of questions and stories to sort out the difficultly of death.