Ava, who is nearly four, is not so bothered about Daddy’s crippling monster toe, but great-grandma’s passing still troubles her.

She has calculated, correctly, that if great-grandma can die, anyone she loves is fair game.

Sometimes Ava defies the inescapable logic. She’ll tell a stranger, “My great-grandma died, but my grandma is never going to die.”

At other times, she plea bargains: “Mama,” she says, cuddling on the couch, “I don’t want you to leave me.”

She knows the happy part is that great-grandma is in heaven, but the sad part is that we don’t get to see her any more. And that she can’t talk. Or write letters. Or go to church. Or anything.

In short, she knows that dead is dead. And while she accepts the heaven part, the consolation is abstract.

Novelist Anne Rice lost her daughter in 1972. From the pain of this infinitely unfolding tragedy, she conceived a series of works about vampires, whom she portrays as god-like, immortal beings. In Rice’s vampire novels, a vampire seeking companionship in the dark night of eternity can confer “the dark gift” of immortality on a mortal by biting them just so. The series resonates in part because it darkly mirrors normal human experience. Life itself is a dark gift: every parent knows their child will suffer and die.

Our daughter is not yet on intimate terms with death, but the two have now met and exchanged a few words.

[tags]ava, family, growing up, death, glamorous, myglamorouslife[/tags]

48 thoughts on “Death

  1. I am 25 and only 3 years ago did I first (and last) meet and exchange a few words with death. Scares me to think about having kids of our own in the next few years, and not having dealt with this part of life much.

  2. I’m really interested in (good) literature about the topic of losing a child. Can anybody recommend authors or books? Thanks.

  3. I remember when the idea of death became a reality for me — I was 5, and lost my great-grandfather. I remember crying for days about it. I also remember when I stopped crying — my dad was just coming home from work, and said to me, “You’re not crying anymore.”
    “I just didn’t have anymore tears”, I replied.

    I have three sons now, and they haven’t yet experienced the pain and loss of death. I’m not looking forward to it at all. Also, I pray that they outlive me. I can’t deal with the thought of anything else…

  4. My daughter is 4 and this hits home. I’m not looking forward to her experiencing death, but when the time comes I’ll be ready.

    I agree with Jason, death is a promotion.

  5. I recently lost a good friend, he had a family with 2 kids and one on the way. His kids seam to be dealing with there loss as best they can. My friend worked with kids and had over 1500 people at his funeral. its amazing to think that some one can do so much for people and be taken away so fast.

    The kids have so many people around them to help them cope. i have a 8 month old son and couldn’t imagine life without him or being apart of his.

    I think the first reaction of death is a selfish one, it leaves you with a feeling of loss. My grandpa passed away after close to 2 years in the hospital, and yes he is in a better place now. but i still didn’t want him to go, but i sure didn’t want to see him in the hospital any longer.

    Death just sucks, i don’t think there is any good time to go. you might have a full life but the people around you might not have a full life of you.

    My condolences to your family.

  6. My grandfather died a couple of months ago. A few times since then, seemingly from nowhere, my son will crawl into my lap with his bottom lip quivering, and say, “I want you, please don’t be dead.” All I can say is, “Not for a long long time.” And then I hold him close.

  7. I was maybe 8 when my mom’s mom died. I remember being sad, but not really inconsolably so. A few years later when my grandfather died, I remember being more sad, but mostly numb for a few days. A few years after that, when the last episode of M*A*S*H aired, I cried like nobody’s business. And then almost immediately felt guilt for not feeling the same emotional damburst over the death of two people who very dear to me (and real).

    Four years ago, when my father died, my oldest child (now 9) didn’t cry very much. It would be two years later, reliving the memory of a pet mouse that died, that broke her emotional dam and the grief over losing “Gran’daddy” hit her like a ton of bricks.

    Fortunately our little one (now 4) has not yet exchanged a few words with Death. But we know that brief appointment is coming one day, probably in the not so distant future, and the thought breaks my heart.

  8. David

    The most poignant poem I’ve ever read about the death of a child is Jon Silkin’s autobigraphical Death of a Son (who died in a mental hospital aged one)/cite>:

    Something has ceased to come along with me.
    Something like a person: something very like one.
    And there was no nobility in it
    Or anything like that.

    Something was there like a one year
    Old house, dumb as stone. While the near buildings
    Sang like birds and laughed
    Understanding the pact
    They were to have with silence. But he
    Neither sang nor laughed. He did not bless silence
    Like bread, with words.
    He did not forsake silence.

    But rather, like a house in mourning
    Kept the eye turned in to watch the silence while
    The other houses like birds
    Sang around him.

    And the breathing silence neither
    Moved nor was still.

    I have seen stones: I have seen brick
    But this house was made up of neither bricks nor stone
    But a house of flesh and blood
    With flesh of stone

    And bricks for blood. A house
    Of stones and blood in breathing silence with the other
    Birds singing crazy on its chimneys.
    But this was silence,

    This was something else, this was
    Hearing and speaking though he was a house drawn
    Into silence, this was
    Something religious in his silence,

    Something shining in his quiet,
    This was different this was altogether something else:
    Though he never spoke, this
    Was something to do with death.

    And then slowly the eye stopped looking
    Inward. The silence rose and became still.
    The look turned to the outer place and stopped,
    With the birds still shrilling around him.
    And as if he could speak

    He turned over on his side with his one year
    Red as a wound

    He turned over as if he could be sorry for this
    And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones, and he died.

    – Jon Silkin

  9. Indeed, it’s a fascinating and unnerving thing to watch our kids grasp the concepts of this world. It’s increasingly evident to me that it’s the bonds and influences of love that form us, mark us and make us. Losing, in the same as creating, changes the way we love and what we know about it. Great post (and good luck with that toe).

  10. @David – “The Year of Magical” thinking is an incredible work of non-fiction from Joan Didion (a master of non-fiction) about the loss of her husband. Her daughter fell ill the same year and died shortly after the book was finished.

  11. .. sorry for ballsing up the formatting!

    My kids are away from home, and re-reading that poem made my eyes go a bit .. you know, moist in a manly, English sort of way

  12. Sometimes the experience of death is easier than staring at it everyday, waiting for it to play checkmate.

    One of my greatest fears is that someday I may have to share the pain that my Son may feel if he ever loses his Sister. She has amazingly beaten the odds by being with us Today (six years ago, we were told that she wouldn’t make it past six months), but the reality is that we have no idea what Tomorrow will bring. We don’t mind the burden though, because nothing matters more to us than “right here, right now”.

    Although our home doesn’t teach anything about the afterlife, we try to live every day above the previous, make the most of what fate delivers, and just simply love without bias. So that when the end comes for someone we love, we make no assumption about “where they are” other than in the happiest of memories.

    I am very sorry to hear about your Grandmother – you have my most sincere condolences.

  13. Mine was 2 when my aunt, whom we’d visited nearly every weekend, finally succumbed to her cancer. I didn’t want to do the ‘heaven’ thing, so I tried to explain death as gently but plainly as possible. Once, more recently, when I asked her why a classmate’s dad never came to pick her up at school, she replied matter-of-factly, “maybe he died.”

    I think of the two of us, I’m the one more bothered by the fact that anyone I love is fair game.

  14. Three years ago last month, my then-fiancée and I had our baby girl. On October 7th of that year, we lost her. We knew her life was to be troubling before she came; she was diagnosed in-utero with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome and Turner’s Syndrome.

    By choosing to bear her to delivery, we chose for her to undergo three open-heart surgeries before she would turn 5. She went under for her first at the tender age of about 48 hours, and survived. We spent the next three months in and out of the hospital, eventually settling into less frequent hospital visits and more frequent nurse visits to our apartment.

    Ella was our seventh addition to a blended family from each of our previous marriages, and her absence brought a cold, draconian hammer down on all my previous conceptions and intuitions of right and wrong, worth and worthlessness.

    Bruce, all I can say is: let it roll. I’ve cried more in the last three years than in all the 34 prior combined. It’s human, and sometimes necessary. Except at Renée Zellweger movies.

    I realize this is all melodramatic, but I have grown to appreciate your nontechnical content more than the technical as its become more directly applicable to my experiences. There’s a tangential tie-in, though: we’ve been very slowly working on a website combining eulogistic content with information about HLHS specifically, and how to parent children with severe physical defects in general. Tough slogging, that, but we’ll get it going eventually.

    Thanks for the posts. Love on yer kids, folks.

  15. When I was 12, the family dog ran off for a week. We’d given up hope of finding him alive. He turned up in a fox trap nearby, his leg badly mangled. We left him at the vet to have an amputation. That night the vet called with dire news, SLIC had passed away. My father gathered the family in the kitchen and broke the news. We all sat there and cried. Grief just filled the room. We gathered his toys and his blanket and talked about the funeral service we would provide him in the morning. Then the phone rang. The vet had mistaken our dog for one with Leukemia. SLIC was still alive.

    It completely changed the way I look at the death and the grieving process. To have lost, re-found, lost and re-found again fairly displayed to me the range of emotions that one goes through when dealing with loss. Losing my father ten years ago was very difficult, but with the right mind-set I was able to cope. I miss him every day and the greatest dreams I have are the ones where he comes back and we hang out.

    I think exposure to death and living with death, like so many things, is best experienced while still young enough to develop the coping mechanisms that will help you when the inevitable situations arise later in life.

    All the best.

  16. For children this is a great way to learn to cope with death.
    Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs (Amazon)

  17. facing death is hard for anyone. kids are actually generally pretty good at it. it’s the adults who just can’t let go.

    and, not to be morbid, but if you have to bury your child- that’s going to be much harder for you than burying you will be for them.

    but i don’t think it’s easy for anyone who wants to face it.

    when my sister died, thich nhat hanh’s _no_death_no_fear_ was very helpful to me. i’d recommend it to anyone facing the death of a loved one …

  18. My father passed away a little over a year ago now. My second daughter Gwen was 4 at the time. She asked a lot of questions. She asked how a heart attack kills someone, and can you and I have heart attacks.

    It took her about two weeks to truly realise death was permanent here on Earth, and it will effect us all. Thats when the crying really started. Took her a while to deal with it.

    Every once and a while she will still ask questions. I found it helped me in dealing with all of it.

  19. My first understanding of the concept of death was via Colonel Sanders. No kidding. We (my mom, my kid brother, and I) were eating some good ole’ KFC and I asked something about the dude on the bucket, like where he lives or something like that.

    Mom: he’s dead
    Me: who shot him? (the influence of mid-80’s Saturday morning cartoons shining through bright as day)
    Mom: nobody shot him, he just died of old age
    Me: … whoa… wait…you mean….oh shit (I’m paraphrasing since I don’t remember much except crying a lot)

    I remember being most upset about the fact that I was going to die one day. and my brother was more upset about our grandmother. I’ve mostly gotten over my fear of death, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over how selfish I was.

  20. My wife and I lost our second child after 5 days and have been awestruck as to how intuitive our first has been about his death. She was just two at the time.

    While I would not describe that she had an absolute comprehension of what actually happened she definitely understood that there was a loss and that something was missing. After all we had spent that previous year telling her she was going to be a big sister.

    Over the last year she periodically has gone through inquisitive stages in which she asks more and more detailed questions. I really found that your description of your daughter’s “inescapable logic” and “plea bargaining” were reminiscent of the experiences we have had with our daughter.

    Death can be a very confusing topic for an adult, let alone a small child. Hearing your child voice fears about mommy or daddy may “leave” or “die” is truly heartbreaking. However, we have found that it is very important to carefully listen/watch for behavior that revolves around the fear of the child may have with they themselves dying … “what if I don’t wake up?” or “what if I don’t come home?”

    I am sorry to hear about your Grandmother.

  21. I remember my daughter’s reaction to my dad’s passing a few years ago. I can still see her in the church, calmly and bravely blowing him a kiss goodbye as she departed down the aisle away from the casket.

    Too bad I couldn’t have the same calm composer my 7 year old had. Good thing she was around to offer me some encouraging words.

  22. your story is very deep and touching. i remember when my father died. I felt so sad and ask myself why is there a need to die. Until know I still hear my father’s voice calling my name and his happy face talkinjg to me.

  23. When I first came into contact with Zeldman he was Zeldman the Technician… it’s sad to me that he seems to now have degenerated into Zeldman the Philosophaster.

  24. Unfortunately for me, my side of the family has endured a lot of conversation with death within the past few years, the last being my grandfather 3 years ago. My kids went with me to the funeral and to watch them try to comprehend only made it worse for me (they did not know their great-grandfather at all due to my schedule and being away for so long).

    This is sad indeed and I hope your little one doesn’t have to experience another conversation for quite some time.

    @Ryan: The only other sad thing I see in here is that comment you made. Real classy.

  25. Earlier this year, my three-year-old daughter lost Sallie, a close grandma figure. We explained as best we could, and we talk about it simply and frankly whenever it comes up, and she seems to get the nub of it. But you never really know what’s going on in those little brains.

    Months later, she continues to grapple with it.

    Right now I’m away from home for two weeks. Even though she saw me off on the bus and she knows I’ll be home in two weeks (just like I was last year) she still comes out with stuff like, “Has daddy been eaten by a T-Rex? Is daddy with Sallie?” I send pictures and video snippets to reassure her. Internet to the rescue.

    The introduction of death into such a young life really is a piercing of her little bubble. You can see she’s rattled by the notion in a really fundamental way. Like your daughter, she has calculated that if death strikes the old, then grandma and grandpa are next in line. We have explained this for now in terms of age+sickness sometimes causes death, but that her grandparents are very healthy and take care of their bodies.

    All of this is compounded for us in that this is the first time my wife and I have lost anyone very close to us—so it’s the introduction of death in a real, non-abstract, non-head-in-the-sand way for us as well.

    Our condolences to you and your family.

  26. I was wondering what to bring as reading material on vacation next week. Something new or something classic that I haven’t read in awhile. Classic it is! Lestat comes on vacation with us. Thanks ….

  27. In our house, it was the death of a pet fish that was the first introduction to the subject as a tangible concept. I won’t forget the reaction of my son as we tried to explain that the fish was gone forever. It took several gently-worded exchanges, but there was a heartbreaking moment when it hit home, you could see the realisation dawn and the acceptance begin. Perhaps it’s the concept of ‘forever’ which is as hard to grasp for a 3-yr-old as the concept of ‘gone forever’.

    That moment also illustrated how hard it is to stick to your guns if you’re an atheist or, like me and I suspect many others, just not too keen on following (and retelling) a structured doctrinal afterlife theory. I think for a kid, it’s not inexcusable to offer some kind of cushion until they decide for themselves, even if you’re not convinced yourself.

    Some of the other comments in this thread remind me that I’m lucky to have what I have. Thank you for your eloquence, Zeldman-readers.

  28. A very close friend of mine died last year, my first encounter with death in my most intimate social circle. My immediate reaction was mostly calm contemplation — no tears, no anguish. Two days later, however, I was at Penn Station waiting for a train, all dressed up and on my way to deliver a pitch for an out-of-town client, when out of nowhere it hit me. It felt like the floor just fell out from under me. I burst into tears right in the middle of the station — and I rarely cry about anything! As I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to suck it up anytime soon, I called up a colleague and asked them to cover for me, then I lurched back home to let the whole thing take its course.

    I still haven’t removed him from my address book.

  29. On a lighter note, my 4-year-old, who is heavily into her superheroes at the moment, asked my father where his father was. “He’s dead,” he replied.

    She thought for a moment, then asked “Who killed him?”

    Because of course everyone must have an evil nemesis…

  30. Lovely post, Jeffrey. On the subject of fiction and death, ‘Pet Sematary’ by Stephen King is one of the most affecting books on parental love you are likely to read. Seriously. I re-read it a few months ago, this time as a parent, and it blew me away. Acceptance is possibly the single biggest theme of the book. Schlock horror ending aside, it’s a beautiful piece of work. (Haven’t seen the movie, no desire to either.)

  31. When my son was growing up we used to drive by a graveyard and he would always want to know what it was. I did not know how to explain, so I would always change the subject.

    When he was about 5 we inevitably visited a graveyard in the UK. Put in the spot, I explained that the graves were the remains of people who had lived a long time ago, way before there were cars or trains or air planes and people had to walk everywhere they went.

    My son then asked me, “was it all the walking that killed them?” Somehow, my weakness and his strength of understanding was reassuring.

  32. Gravity
    When a human being is born we have no idea what gravity is. It is a
    learned concept. Small children learn about when they fall. That is usually the first encounter. Gravity can be as simple as that or as complex as someone dying. As human beings we grapple with
    what gravity is every day. We never understand it. The wise learn to respect it. We always grieve, rationalize, and ponder over the subject of it but deny the object exists. As if are able to change the relative attributes of an event.

    I went through the same thing with my great-grandma. Grandma Henry was was supposedly blind she always made me walk her to the dining table and to the bathroom. I was four. One Christmas she was looking intently at the tree and said to my grandfather, “Elmer, you have a green bulb out on the tree”. At four years old she taught me compassion. I sat whit her while she passed. She squeezed my hand, smiled, and shut her eyes.

    I guess the best thing we can do while we are here is to be good to each other. To have compassion and empathy. We will never quite understand gravity but those qualities make it easier to deal with.

    Peace to you and your family, Jeffrey.

  33. After the death of the grandma of a little friend of his, my 5-yr-old nephew has decided “he won’t grow up” so that my father “doesn’t go to heaven”.

  34. Our neighbour lost her husband to a brain tumor 3 years ago. He was dead within 3 months of being diagnosed. She has a 12 yr old son who was 9 at the time. He has not spoken about his father since his death. He refuses to even mention his name or talk about it. No tears, no counselling, no nothing.

    I can only imagine the long term effects that this will have on the rest of his life.

  35. Thank you all for sharing your experiences. Some of the comments are so painful I can barely bring myself to read them. My heart and gratitude go out to you all.

  36. Two years ago I lost my father-in-law. He had been confined to bed with a terminal dementia condition for 14 months of my grandson’s 2 1/2 years. Great-grandpa was there physically, but not mentally yet the bond between them was amazing – built during those first months when he was growing so fast mentally and great-grandpa was a regular part of his life, but in some ways it was rather casual. Great-grandpa being confined to bed was just the current “normal” to him.

    For months afterward there had been no mention of great-grandpa. Almost a year after his death, my grandson asked one day if great-grandpa was still sick. The answer was that great-grandpa was in heaven, but the response was “but is he still sick?” When told that people in heaven are not sick, his response was simply “Ok” and that was the end of that.

  37. First, I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. It’s always sad to lose somebody by death.

    I’ve had a couple of experiences with death, the first three (two grandfathers and one neighbor who was like a grandfather) were sad, no doubt. But they were sick and I could almost tell they weren’t going to live much longer.

    The most recent death, however, involved an old friend of my brother and I. We didn’t hang out much at the time of his death; not because of any falling out, but just different interests and responsibilities as we grew up. It was sudden and he was young, so that was a lot different for us.

    Back to the first three deaths, the little ones in the family have coped with these losses. They don’t remember that much of our friend. Not in a false hope sort of way, but in a truthful hope.

    In reply to the earlier comments, calling the desire to no die “selfish” is inaccurate. No one is truly meant to die. Life was really meant to be lived forever.

    But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.1 Thess. 4:13-14

    That’s what we and the little ones go by. Of course, we don’t get all finicky about “who’s where”. That’s not our job. :)

  38. My father died when I was 8 and my sisters were 4 and 2, some 25 years ago. I often still cry when I think about it; it tore a hole in the world that never quite mended. Sometimes he shows up randomly in dreams, and usually that’s a good thing. I love seeing his picture, or hearing stories that make him more real. I hope your little girl can get to know her great-grandma better over the years, even if it’s 2nd-hand.

  39. To the guy who complained about Zeldman philosophizing:

    For years I have read My Glamorous Life posts because Zeldman’s writing is so moving. He helped me process my feelings about 9/11 with his gut-wrenching posts after the event. His musings on being a parent are poignant and insightful. This section of his blog is not even meant to be technology-related. What are you thinking?

  40. My dad died a few years ago, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. He was a beautiful, compassionate man…the kind of guy who considered anyone a potential friend. He was an architect, artist, guitar player, singer, pacifist, and the most nonjudgmental person I’ve ever met. He was home for a week with hospice before he died, and our house was full of family and friends the entire week…his 25 grandkids flew in from around the country, all seven of his kids were there. It was like family reunion with a packed house. He had multiple people at his side for the entire week expect for about a half hour when we told him “Okay Dad, sometimes people prefer to die alone, and we haven’t even given you that chance! So you have a half hour, and we’ll all leave the room. After that, you’re stuck with us.”

    We like to think he not only taught us all how to live, but how to die as well. And now there are moments when the loss hits full force, especially when I hear certain songs that he used to sing. He sang at church for my entire life, so it’s usually in church that it hits me…especially because he designed the church! I see him in my son, and that glimpse of the man inside the boy reminds me of how we’re all connected, and that my 5 year old is a little man inside a boy’s body, and that I have the honor and responsibility to help shape that man (so don’t mess up!)

    At any rate, after my dad died, a friend passed along a book call Final Gifts, written by two hospice nurses about their experiences in helping dying people. It was helpful even after dad’s death, but would most benefit someone who is facing the death of a loved one so that they can help that person on the journey. Highly recommended.

    Another book I love is the children’s book Grandads Prayers of the Earth about a young boy who loses his grandpa. Probably because it reminds me of my dad. Beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully written…another good read.


  41. I’ve experienced death in the family twice. My uncle when I was 14 or 15 and my father almost 2 years ago now. I’m 26 and I still find it difficult to not be fatalistic about life now. Some things just seem almost pointless to me and other things I want to treasure. It can be difficult for a young one to understand life and death but at the very least it’s her first step towards understanding. Just thank your lucky stars that it wasn’t her own daddy or mummy who passed away.

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