Teaching Children About Death

Now that the week is well underway (in fact, the week is almost over), I figured now would be a good time to delve into the subject of death. Surprise! In particular, I wanted to talk about teaching children about death. More specifically, I wanted to talk about teaching a toddler about death. Even MORE specifically, I wanted to share my experience with teaching my toddler about death.

Nellie has, unfortunately, been around death more often than I’d like. Not saying that she’s been involved in a lot of tragedy but since May of 2011, we have had 6 people in either our immediate or outside family die. Nellie herself has been around two dying people; Josh’s Nana, and my mother. She visited both while they were being cared for by hospice.

Nellie was almost two when my mom died in December of 2011. My mom had been in her life relatively regularly. I did about all I could manage considering my strained relationship with her. When Nellie came to visit while mom was in the hospice unit I could tell she was somewhat affected; the sight of someone lying unmoving and unresponsive in the bed was probably a little scary for her. I’m a strong believer that children are very perceptive so I am sure she picked up on the vibe in the hospice unit as well.

When mom died, I didn’t take the opportunity to teach Nellie what that meant, because she didn’t really notice. It’s not like my mom was around every single day. I took care to talk to Nellie about her grandma. I would talk about my mom when Nellie would play with the Twilight Turtle that was my mother’s last gift to her. I told Nellie who the turtle was from, and stressed the fact that it was a very important gift.

The first lesson regarding death that my daughter received was more recently. I haven’t blogged about this yet, but while she and I were away in Chicago, my cat Mungo died.

teaching children about death

Mungo, circa 2005 or so.

I’d had Mungo for over ten years. We’re not sure what happened – Josh said he was acting a little funny, and a few days later he was gone. When I got the news I was sad, of course – but not devastated. Friends and family gave me their sincere sympathies – which I appreciated – but when I told people that I was okay, I really meant it. His absence was weird at first; it was the first time in my entire life that I hadn’t had a cat. But once I’d gotten over the initial feelings of being kind of bummed and getting used to his furry little presence not being in the apartment, I was really okay.

Losing 6 family members – one of them being your mother – in a year kind of puts things into perspective.

Anyway. I was sitting on the floor playing with Nellie once we had gotten home. We’d been home for a day, and she hadn’t said anything about the absence of our cat. She was playing with a toy cat that she has when all of a sudden, she picked her head up and looked around.

“Cat? Where my cat?” she held her little hands out, palms up to the ceiling.
I paused.
“The cat is gone, Nellie,” I told her.
“I go find him.” she said with certainty and a little nod.
My heart tugged – just a little – and I took a deep breath. It was one of Those Moments in parenting – one that would lay a brick in the foundation of her Self. Even if she is too little to really remember – somewhere inside of her, what I had to say about such a heavy topic would stick. Teaching a child about death is one of those things that holds such responsibility it’s almost scary. What I said in that moment could affect her forever: I could teach her to fear death and view it as a horrible, unfair part of life and leave her unable to cope or process when someone she loves dies… Or I could teach her to embrace and accept it as an inevitability; something we all must go through – every one of us – and to take it as it comes with as little fear as possible.

I chose the latter.

“No, baby,” I said. “We can’t go find him, because he is gone. Mungo is dead, and that means that he is gone. And he is never coming back. And that is okay.”
I could have stopped there and she probably would’ve been fine, but I’m awkward and over-analyze everything so I continued.
“And it’s okay to feel sad. And it’s also okay to not feel sad.”

A little heavy for the toddler perhaps, yes?

I explored her face, watching for a reaction. She looked at me for a moment, considering, and said:

“I watch Beauty and the Beast!” She scrambled up off the floor and to the television.

And that was that.

She asked about the cat one more time, this time when Josh was around. He handled it similarly to how I did, she didn’t have much of a reaction, and she hasn’t asked about Mungo since.

I am sure that this will not be the last lesson we will have in regards to the subject of death and dying. When she is older, the finality and gravity of death will mean more and the conversation will probably be more difficult. It’s an interesting thing, being handed these tiny human beings and being expected to teach them these lessons about life – lessons that some full-grown adults have yet to fully accept and absorb. It’s scary, it’s humbling, and it’s an eye-opener that our words as parents have the power to affect our children to their very core.

What experiences do you have in teaching children about death? Have you had to have that talk yet? What will you say if you haven’t?

Toddler Travels: From Nashville to Chicago

Nellie and I flew to Chicago for my mom’s memorial service two weeks ago. This isn’t her first trip to Chicago. She flew with me last September when she was 20 months old. Traveling with her the first time was a breeze – navigating the airport by myself with all our carry-ons, car seat and stroller was the hardest part. She flew beautifully, was well behaved the entire trip, and fell asleep for the entire return trip.

This time? I wasn’t so lucky.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t what I’d call a nightmare, exactly… But traveling with a toddler proved more difficult this time. I’ve decided to begin a short series that I call “Toddler Travels” to tell the tales of our Chicago adventure. We’ll begin with the journey North.

Toddler Travels: From Nashville to Chicago
Tuesday, May 29th. 11:00 P.M. I was lying in bed, still awake. Why was I still awake? I had to be up at 4:00 A.M. to load the car, get myself ready, get Nellie dressed, so we could leave the house by 5. While lying in bed all I could think was, “Am I fucking insane? How the fuck am I supposed to get through the airport with her stroller, car seat, carry ons, what if the plane crashes, what if she escapes the stroller and I don’t notice? What if I forget her in the bathroom and it’s like Home Alone? Home Alone in an airport bathroom wouldn’t be nearly as madcap and hilarious as the movie was. Can a toddler even SET booby traps? Where is she going to find paint cans and Christmas ornaments for potential burglers/abductors/monsters to step on? What if there’s a gremlin on the wing? PANIC PANIC PANIC.”

That’s pretty much what was running through my head from 11 P.M. until approximately 1 A.M. when my body took over my brain and passed out from sheer exhaustion.

At 4 A.M. my alarm cheerfully woke both me & Josh up, telling us it was time to GTFOut of bed and get moving. Luckily I had packed everything, and everything was ready to go minus Nellie and the things she was currently sleeping with. Before long, we were loaded into the car and ready to head to Nashville. It was still dark, so we were hoping Nellie would sleep the majority of the way there. Luck was on our side, and she slept until about 30 minutes outside Nashville (it’s a 2 hour drive from Chattanooga) when we stopped for a bathroom break. We grabbed a quick bite at McDonalds (mmm. Stale biscuits and chewy bacon), and after another short bathroom break (MY BLADDER SUCKS, OKAY? NOT FUN FOR ME) we reached our destination. Thank the gods for curbside check-in; Josh was able to help me with my luggage to the curbside check-in and I was able to handle it from there.

I had learned my lesson from last time: pushing a stroller AND pulling a wheeled carry-on? Not so easy. Instead of a carry-on that I had to push/pull/carry, I wore both of our carry-on bags. My purse is a cross-body so that served as mine, and Nellie’s carry-on was her little pink backpack with butterflies on it (can you say BADASS?). That left me free to push her stroller which only posed one problem: her car seat. I decided to bring it with us on the plane for numerous reasons: I was afraid it’d get lost, broken, or stolen if I checked it with my luggage, and I knew she’d be more comfortable and more likely to sit still if she rode in it on the plane.

I rented a luggage cart for $4.00, which worked okay but again I ran into the problem of pushing her stroller AND the cart. All was okay until we reached security. When Nellie saw all of the people buzzing about she freaked out.

“UP. UP. MAMA. UP. UPPPPPPPPPP!!!!” she pleaded desperately, her little arms outstretched toward me. Clearly, she was also panicking about plane gremlins and being left in the bathroom.
“Nellie, baby, Mama can’t pick you up now. We are in an airport and I need you to sit still. You can get out in a minute and walk through that fun thing there! YAY!” I pointed at the metal detector. Nellie gave me the side-eye.

Last time I traveled, there was a helpful woman who hoisted my car seat onto the security conveyor belt for me and helped me collapse my stroller. Apparently Nashville was populated entirely by assholes this time, because all I got was the stink-eye from a busy-looking woman in a business suit. FUCK OFF MS. FANCY PANTS, DON’T THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME JUST BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE SMOOSHED-UP FRUIT SNACKS IN YOUR HAIR.

We got through security painlessly albeit a bit slowly, and that’s when I decided to ditch the cumbersome luggage cart. After struggling with it for a few seconds (my brain was addled by plane anxiety, shrieks of “MAMA! UP! MAMA! LOOK! FOX! PLANE!”, and not enough coffee) a nice airport worker gave me a pitying look and returned it to a dock for me. I took the straps of Nellie’s car seat, looped them around the handles of her umbrella stroller and then used the seat to steer. Brilliant. Awards forever.

Nashville airport is the greatest place on Earth, and that’s because they have a playground. It’s like one of those you see at the mall – foam, soft, probably germ-ridden but who gives a rat’s ass at this point, right? Just play on the damn airplane slide and try not to lick anything, kid.

  Mmmm.. Tastes like pink eye.

Nellie had a great time playing and only got in trouble twice when she tried to run off. Instead of having a panic attack and shrieking at her about getting abducted by tourists I very calmly put her in “time-out”, which was actually very effective on her. We stopped for some snacks, gate-checked her stroller and before we knew it, it was time to board the plane. We flew Southwest (which is a great airline, by the way) and the flight attendants were very helpful, just like last time. As I carried Nellie on, they carried her car seat. I crammed her car seat onto the window seat of our chosen aisle, got her situated and flopped into my seat with a sigh of relief. The hard part was over – unless, of course, there was actually a gremlin on the side of the plane. Which OF COURSE there wasn’t – that’s ridiculous. Everyone knows that a gremlin would be smarter and find a way to get ON the  plane, probably through gnawing its way through someone’s carry-on luggage, or posing as a hat, or something equally as sneaky.

I digress. The flight itself was very easy – beautiful weather, no turbulence, and I was able to keep Nellie entertained with apps on my iPhone almost the entire time. The flight from Nashville to Chicago is super quick – you’re only in the air for about an hour. Once we landed we had to wrestle her car seat from the airplane seat, maneuver it out of the plane and once again awkwardly make our way through the airport. Luckily our gate wasn’t at the End of the Universe like it was last time, so it didn’t take long for us to make it through and reach my dad. After some brief confusion where we thought one piece of my luggage was lost (it wasn’t – in fact, some asshat had plucked my small, black cosmetic bag from the belt, realized it wasn’t there bag, and PUT IT ON TOP OF A PODIUM instead of putting it back on the belt like a normal person who wasn’t King Asshat of Chicago), we were settled into dad’s car and headed to breakfast.

We had made it to Chicago in one piece. Our trip had begun, and we made it gremlin-free.

Stay tuned for more tales of our Chicago adventures!

Your Baby is Walking? OMG! Congratulations! Your Life is Over.

I wrote a blog a while ago about how Nellie is a perfectionist. I commented that at nearly 15 months and still not walking it was hard not to worry.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I can now stop worrying about her lack of walking and switch to worrying about something else,  because on Friday evening, this happened:

Now, Nellie’s been pulling up and cruising and taking a few unsure, wobbly steps for a few weeks now. Almost never more than 4, and always resulting in a tumble. This past Friday night I was sitting at the kitchen table and she was holding on to a nearby chair. I was looking at my laptop screen when all of a sudden, she let go of the chair and walked all the way across the living room. I looked at her for a good ten seconds before I realized what had just happened. There was no tumbling, no falling. It was as if my kid had just decided: “yep. I’m going to walk now.”

I promptly freaked out, and looked at my daughter who was standing in the living room. “Come here, Nellie! Come to mommy!” I squealed at her.

And then she did. She walked right back over to me. My daughter walked right over to me in that adorable, arms-up, wobbly toddler way. I squealed again and scooped her up, hugging her and praising how amazing she was. Because, duh, she’s the first kid ever to do this.  Then I snatched up the camera and took the video above. Please note my awesome parenting skills as my kid tries to play with an electrical socket.

After a few more treks about the apartment to make sure that this was for real, I announced to my Facebook friends and family that she was finally, officially walking. I was met with congratulations from everyone, but also:

“Your life is over!”

“Welcome to a whole new world!”

“Did I mention your life is over?”

“Put everything you own on top of the fridge.”

“Hide your kids, hide your wife.” (ok, I made that one up.)

“Hey! Did you know your life is over?”

So far, my life is still very much marching on and I love watching her walk. She’s so cute in her wobbly, crazy steps. I’m still not used to the sight of my tiny daughter walking but it gives me a thrill every time I see it. She has also entered a super cuddly phase, where she will give you a hug if you ask her. She also likes to force Josh and I to kiss, but that’s a whole different post.

Dear readers, I have officially entered the realm of having a toddler. A real, toddling toddler. Is my life over? No. It actually feels like the excitement has just begun.