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Mindful : October 2015
need to explore their world, to imagine their life, and to begin wrestling with this part of the human condition.” When Opal started asking me about death, I didn’t want to lie to her or overlook the fresh wound of her concern. But I didn’t want to cause her nightmares either. I navigated her questions with simple, generic responses and lengthy hugs until I was able to get a better grasp on how to respond. I began by researching kids’ books on the sub- ject, including Lifetimes by David Rice, and The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. Both stories focus on the cyclical nature of life. “ We all fear what we don’t know,” The Fall of Freddie the Leaf tells us. “ Yet, you were not afraid when spring became summer. They were natural changes. Why should you be afraid of the season of death?” Not a bad start, still I needed more. I needed to know what information was appropriate for Opal’s age group so that I could answer her questions with confidence instead of panic. Keep It Concrete “School-aged kids don’t do well with symbolism and metaphors,” advised Joe Soma, a psychol- ogist in Boulder, Colorado. They need concrete details. It’s best to explain death in simple, scientific terms. Everything lives and dies. The trees and animals have to die to make room for new things to be born.” “But what if saying that makes Opal even more afraid?” I asked. “ You can acknowledge her fear and tell her that adults feel scared, too,” he said. “But always bring it back around to something concrete like, ‘ What did you do to take care of your body today?’” Opal’s first reprieve from death-angst came during a trip to the farm with friends, days into her questioning. Animals and nature were just the ticket; she didn’t mention death for hours. Her daddy and I had talked to her about the cycles-of-life earlier that morning when we found her crying in the bathroom, toothbrush dangling from her lips. She seemed to take in our words, to understand death and rebirth in her five-year-old way. At the farm, I pointed out the baby pig and the fresh leaves on the trees. New life. But, on our way home, in the vulnera- ble place of post-play emptiness, she whispered, “Mommy, I’m thinking about it again.” When we returned, Opal took stock of the life spans of everything in the house. “The fish will live the shortest. No, the plants will. Then the dog will die next, then the cat.” She paused to brush a clump of bangs from her eye. “You and daddy are next, right? But not for a long, long time, right, mama?” Perhaps Opal was trying to escape thoughts of her own death by assembling lists of things she felt she understood. Mommy and Daddy are at the end of the list. The fish, the cat and the dog have to die before we even think of Mommy and Daddy dying. It’s almost as if those names and that list had the power to stave off death for Mommy, Daddy and Opal. Especially if repeated aloud. Like Joe Soma, New York City psychologist— and my uncle—Richard Zuckerberg also stressed the importance of using concrete details when talking to kids about death. Moreover, he said, sometimes questions that seem to be about death are really about separation, about losing Mommy and Daddy. He thought this might be the case when I mentioned that Opal had been unusually volatile in the weeks leading up to her pressing questions. He suggested I use concrete details to reas- sure her by saying, “I understand that you are worried, but remember how we came back after school today? We’ll always come back. We are taking good care of ourselves and plan to live a very long time, but if something ever happens to us, you will be totally cared for.” I expected those words to breed more fear in Opal, but I was pleasantly surprised. Instead, she wanted to know who would take care of her. I recited a long list of friends and relatives who would be there for her, no matter what. I could see her taking in the names, one by one, as if she were using them to weave a huge safety net around herself. Model Emotional Intelligence In my quest for answers, I met with Michele Bourgeois, an educator, social worker, and school counselor in Lyons, Colorado, who teaches yoga, mindful breathing, singing, and art to elementary school children. She believes that, “If you give kids many avenues of expres- sion on an average day, you are laying the groundwork for them to have ways in which to process grief when the need arises.” Joseph Primo pointed out that, “If our end game is to prepare children for life and to give them the tools they need to be resourceful, empathic beings, then we are required to model → October 2015 mindful 61