Recently, my daughter came home from school talking about the baby panda born at Smithsonian's National Zoo. We, like the rest of the country, couldn’t wait to get a look at the cub ourselves.
On Sunday, I happened to check my e-mail in my daughters’ presence and learned the baby panda had died, only 6 days old.
I gasped aloud. My daughters asked me why, and I instinctively lied. I told them a mosquito bit me.
Lying to my kids about the harsher realities of life, and death, comes too naturally to me. I want to protect them and keep intact the fragile bubble of fantastical thinking.
This is a mistake, experts and the late, great children’s author Maurice Sendak have repeatedly tried to tell parents like me. They say leaving kids to explain such questions themselves is what nightmares are made of.
The Web site KidsHealth is one of many resources for explaining the concept of death. It details how to use concrete language with literal-minded younger children and how to turn the conversation into a larger discussion of belief and faith with older ones.
The advice is also a bracing reminder that many families confront the “death talk” in far more difficult circumstances. Parents might face it when an elderly relative falters. Or when death comes unexpectedly.
A few months ago, a reader left a comment on a post about pet death that I found applicable. That parent had lost his dog and grieved with his 5-year-old. In the end, the loss led to several talks about life and death.
“My advice is to trust your children,” he wrote. “Be open and honest. . . .Death is a reality that is best addressed before tragedy occurs. The death of a pet, soul crushing as it may be, is a great training ground. Consider that the silver lining to a really, really, dark cloud.”
That’s why I told my 3-year-old that we could not visit the panda. My 5-year-old bounded into the room with a “What?!?”
I repeated myself and went on to explain that the baby cub had been too weak to survive. “Sometimes that happens. It’s very sad.”