Our success as parents of a grieving child is not measured in inverse proportion to the number of tears or the depth of sadness. The most loving approach is often the most honest—one that looks mortality in the eye, affirms and validates sadness, and lets the griever find the voice of his grief.
When 4-year-old Lucas began to ask about death, his father Andrew loved and respected him enough to take his questions seriously. What follows is a moving and heartfelt account by Andrew of his son's early grap-plings with mortality, brought to the fore by the death of a beloved pet. It was first posted on the discussion forum at www.AtheistParents.org on April 30, 2008.
Today our cat Seymour gave up the ghost. He was 17 years old and his kidneys failed.
After he died, I went out back to dig a grave for him, with Lucas in tow. Lucas was very excited to dig the grave. He has this interest in graveyards and cemeteries. Part of it is that he likes "spooky things," and part of it is his questions about death. About five months ago he started to ask me about death. I told him, "Everything that is living will someday die." One night he asked if an old lady on TV was going to die, and I said "Everything that is living will someday die." He then asked, "Will I die?"
I told him with a measured voice, "Everything that is living will someday die."
"I DON'T WANT TO DIE!" he said. "I WANT TO STAY HERE ALL THE DAYS! I WANT TO PLAY WITH ALL THE CARS! I WANT TO GO TO ALL THE RESTAURANTS! I WANT TO READ ALL THE BOOKS! I DON'T WANT TO DIE!" After some explanations and some more tears, he seemed to calm down.
Since then, "spooky things" and cemeteries have become more prevalent in his play. And then, Seymour was gone.
After April came home and I consoled her, we made our way out to the meager grave. Lucas was ahead of us, almost skipping, "We dug a grave, and we are going to put Seymour's body in it." We laid his body down in the hole, and Lucas gave a giggle or two as we put the first shovelful of dirt on top of our departed cat. By the second shovelful, tears were streaming down the boy's face.
"Goodbye, Seymour," he said. "I guess we'll never see you again," and swallowing the words faster then he could say them — "I love you."
He picked some dandelions and wild violets and placed them on top of the dirt pile. "I loved him too much. I hope he is not sick in my memories." He put a big cinderblock at one side of the hole and asked April to write "Mommy, Daddy, and Lucas Loves Seymour."
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