I've often pondered the concept of explaining death to Samantha. She's got two things going against her - the fact that she's a young child, and the fact that she has an intellectual disability that makes understanding things, especially conceptual things that aren't tangible, much more difficult. And I knew we would have to broach the subject sooner than later, with a 92-year-old great-grandmother with Alzheimer's, and, closer to her everyday life, a geriatric cat with multiple health issues.
Gamie, my mother's mother, my grandmother, Sammi's great-grandmother, did pass away 2 months ago. I didn't post about it then, as I didn't feel it was appropriate, but I mention it now because Samantha came to the funeral with us, but we didn't tell her where we were, or why we were there. She wouldn't have understood, and we didn't want to upset her. She had met Gamie numerous times, and I think she knew who she was, but I can't be sure. I have to giggle, though, because between Gamie's Alzheimer's and Samantha's ID, I don't think either of them knew much more about each other than that each was a person the other had met in passing.
But death remains a difficult idea to convey to a child.
Delilah, our geriatric, 3-legged cat with a raging thyroid issue, had to be put to sleep yesterday. As I had posted previously, Samantha has become quite attached to the cats lately. She tromps through the house on the hunt for them, calling them, searching under beds, behind doors. She feeds them most nights. She corners them and forces them to sit still as she pets and kisses them.
When I got home from work yesterday evening, I knew it was time to say goodbye to Delilah. Before putting her into the cat carrier so Steve could take her to the vet, I called Samantha over and let her pet and kiss her one more time, told her to say goodbye to her, and carefully explained that Delilah was very old and very sick, and that she would likely not be coming home with Daddy from the vet. That when animals and people get very old and very sick, their bodies just stop working. That the doctor would help her to go to sleep so she wouldn't wake up, but so she wouldn't feel sick anymore. That she was going to heaven where she would be happy and have 4 legs again, and get to play with butterflies all day in the clouds.
Sammi listened, and I'm not sure how much she got of it. Sounding intrigued, like it was going to be a fun place to visit her, she said, "Really? Delilah will be all better!" Actually, her reaction was more like I'd just told her she was going to have a friend over for a playdate tomorrow. But I do feel certain that she understood that Delilah wasn't coming back, and that she was in a better place.
I told her that we were very sad, that it was okay to feel sad. When she saw that I was crying, she put her arms around me, snuggled close, and said, "I love you mommy." She knows.
Heaven is a tough concept, even for me. The agnostic in me doesn't know if it exists, but likes the idea of heaven. The mommy in me knows that it has to exist, that it's the right thing to say to my daughter, to help her understand. We have to compromise our beliefs sometimes in the name of good parenting. I'm not opposed to heaven as a concept Sammi grows up with believing - it's not necessarily a religious thing to me, but a coping mechanism, a way of putting things into perspective, and it's not something that's limited to children, like a belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Actually, as a coping mechanism is how I view religion in general (I'm not judging - I actually appreciate so much about it and know how much good it can do for some people!), but I certainly don't want to get into a theological discussion here. Maybe one day, but not now.
I have to hand it to my husband. I'm so grateful that he took Delilah lastnight. It just wasn't appropriate for Samantha to go with us, and one of us needed to stay with her at home. He spared me a very difficult task, and allowed me to have that talk with Samantha that I knew was coming. Actually, I think that having gone through this with Delilah, it may be easier to explain to Samantha about Gamie. The door has been opened, and I think she's learned something from this.
For those of you who have been there already, what has worked for you in having this discussion with your child?