or another way that I’m a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad mommy
This post is written in response to a question that was asked on facebook. I started to write a response, but it became so unbearably long (even though I tried to be succinct), that I decided it need to be a blog post instead. The subjects of death and guns seem to be inextricably entwined in our household, so this has morphed into a discussion of both. Please take everything written in this post as merely a statement of my opinion. I know that there are other opinions on these matters. I even agree with some of those other opinions. I understand that, to a great extent, my opinions on these subjects are a neurotic product of childhood terrors that I have not “gotten over”. In fact, some of these beliefs and opinions are so strongly held and so deep-seeded that it has taken me the better part of three days to write this post. I’ve never taken this long to write a post, nor have I ever had to “take a break” in the middle of writing a post because the emotions coming to the surface were so overwhelming that I needed to think about something else before I could continue.
In a very “girls are delicate flowers, while boys are little sociopaths in training” way, our girls each “got” death pretty much on their own. Our boys, on the other hand, like to “kill” things. I don’t mean they go down to the basement and torture kittens. I mean they “shoot” each other with “guns”. I put guns in quotes, because there aren’t any guns, real or pretend, in our house. M’duine and I agree that guns are not toys, therefore toy guns are not acceptable playthings. We have no plastic guns. We have no squirt guns. We do not allow our children to make guns out of Legos(tm) or coat hangers or sticks or their fingers. In fact, almost twenty years later, my younger brother still apologizes occasionally for The Great Christmas Cap Gun Incident, in which he gave my oldest daughter a (even then) retro silver 50s-style cap pistol for Christmas, which she was never allowed to play with.
M’duine and I disagree (rather vehemently) about whether or not guns are acceptable tools to have in a house with children (or with me, for that matter). Currently, we have no guns. This is, primarily, because every time the subject is brought up our calm discussion eventually devolves into a shouting argument in which we both feel that the other party is not listening. And, I become a hysterical, sobbing, incoherent blob of attitude that curls into the fetal position, pulls the covers over my head, and refuses to speak until I wake from a fitful night’s sleep, all the while making m’duine feel worse. These encounters do not make me feel good about myself. And, yes, I honestly believe that this is one of those situations in which I am primarily to blame for the rift and I am the one who needs to do the great majority of the changing. I’m trying. I’ve actually come a long way in the last fifteen years. I’m just not to his side of the river yet. Presently, I feel a bit like I’ve lost my raft in the rapids and can’t keep my head above the roiling water and chaos of it all. Anyway, back to the much happier subject of how we deal with death …
When our children start “playing at death” (i.e., “shooting” each other with their “guns”) we explain that “dead” is not a game – Dead is permanent and means that the person can never come back and you can never see them again. This sounds really harsh written out, but we are as gentle with the idea as possible. With each of the boys this has started around two to three years-old, so death is a hard concept for them to grasp, and it has to be re-explained many times. I redirect the child’s attention from the pretend killing to another activity. I also do not engage in the pretend killing. When one of them “shoots” me, I simply state (with no emotion on my face), “Pretend guns don’t work on Mommy. No more shooting, please.”
M’duine has introduced the older boys to a few realistic war movies to give them an idea of what war and being in the military are “really” like (as opposed to their idealized versions of war). He also answers their questions about his time in the Navy as candidly as he is able. Neither of us wear our hearts on our sleeves, but we don’t hide our emotions from our children, either. My parents were fairly open and honest with their feelings, so it’s just what I consider “normal”. M’duine’s father especially, was not an open man, emotionally. M’duine has reacted to that by being very open with our children.
We have found that this all seems to make it easier for our children when someone close to them dies. We have just explained that people die, because they grow old or get sick or have an accident, and that it is forever. Recently, our family lost Papa. He was my paternal grandmother’s second husband. I make this distinction so that everyone understands that he was not my biological grandfather and that he was not my father’s father. He was, however, the only grandfather my children ever knew on that side of the family, as my grandfather died when I was thirteen. Papa was also very well loved. He lived well until the last few years, when Alzheimer’s began to take the better part of his mind. All of the children were allowed to attend the funeral. There were also allowed to approach the open casket, as they felt comfortable. They were not forced to go in to the chapel, but they were not kept out of it, either. And an adult went in with them whenever they asked for that. Very soon after we arrived my grandmother and my father (Opa) went into the chapel. Our then three-year-old, Stud, followed them. A few feet from the casket he stopped, looked at Papa, then looked at Opa and very matter-of-factly stated “I do not like that him (Papa) died.” Opa, with tears in his eyes, told Stud “I do not like that him died, either.” Stud and Opa then exited the chapel to the foyer, where my father extolled the virtues of his very wise grandson to anyone who would listen. Stud climbed up on my lap and cuddled for a bit, while I answered his questions about “Why him died?” and explained that even though he “did not want him to died”, it was Papa’s time to be with the Creator.
I understand why people use the “sleep” analogy, but we don’t with our children. I was terrified as a small child that if I fell asleep, I might not wake up because I would be dead. (I worried more than my fair share.) A couple of our children worry (somewhat) like I did, and I don’t want them to deal with the same level of anxiety that I did. The classic children’s bedtime prayer about “now I lay me down to sleep”? Um, yeah, nightmares much?! I am not exaggerating when I state, categorically, that I was convinced that I would die in my sleep. Mix that with an unhealthy conviction that I was never quite good enough to make it into Heaven, and you have the recipe for borderline-debilitating childhood insomnia. Top that all off with a sprinkling of diagnosed ADHD, and what you have is a chronically anxious little girl who can neither concentrate, nor sit still, and who has very little impulse control. I wonder to this day how my parents kept from killing or institutionalizing me as a child, and I’m convinced that the only reason I didn’t break my neck trying to “fly” off the top of a jungle gym at some random playground was my rather crippling acrophobia.
Wow, what a rambling path of semi-coherent gibberish. My point was, that we explain to our children, as best we can, that death is an inescapable fact of life, that it is permanent, that it is not a game, what we believe about the afterlife, and that the people we love who die before us are always with us in our thoughts and memories. It seems to be working for us with our six children. Take from it what you will and feel free to pitch the rest in the bin. I am a little disappointed that it took me so long to put that into words, though. <sigh>
I’ll leave you with my favorite Shakespearean quote, as spoken by Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do no reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.