I thought that kids were about six years old when they started to grapple with the concept of death, but granddaughter Amalia has been obsessing about it since she turned four-- although she’s never had a close relative, or even a pet, pass away. And it’s probably my fault. On a visit to her home in Manhattan, I once said something like this: “That book is by a man named Maurice Sendak. He’s a very good artist and writes wonderful books, but he’s dead now.”
I could hear my daughter Eleni exclaiming from the next room, “Why would you say something like that? You have no filter!”
It’s true. I was thinking the same thing myself, as Amalia asked, “Why is he dead?”
“Well he was very old,” I replied lamely.
“Like you?” she asked.
“Oh, much older than I am,” I lied.
I was also, according to Eleni, the person who introduced Amalia to the concept of heaven when she asked one day where my Mommy was and I replied “in heaven.” The conversation ended there, but she must have been mulling it over.
On a more recent visit to New York, Amalia and her Mommy took me out to a restaurant for dinner on the last night before I left for home. On the way to the restaurant Amalia suggested brightly, “Mommy, I’ve got a great idea! We should take Yiayia out to dinner on her last night with us before she goes to heaven!”
Hilarity ensued, although I assured Amalia that it was an excellent idea, but I wasn’t planning on going to heaven just yet because I wanted to dance at her wedding first.
Maurice Sendak aside, Amalia has been distressing her mother for months by insisting that she doesn’t want to grow up. She doesn’t even want to turn five. She wants to stay four years old forever.
This is a very scary thing to hear, especially for a parent. When Amalia says it to me, I counter by listing all the good things she’ll be able to do when she’s older that she can’t do now—ride a bike, drive a car, even get married and have her own children.
Recently, after my recitation of the good things that come with age, Amalia conceded that she would like to grow up after all, but that she never wanted to be “Old like you, so that people look at the veins in my hands.”
The veins on the back of my hands were bothering Amalia even before she could talk very well. It must have been when she was around two and really into putting Disney character Band-aids on everyone and everything. One day she pointed at my hands with concern, said “boo-boo!” and tried to put Band-aids on the backs of my hands. I explained that it wasn’t a boo-boo, but just the way hands look when you’re old.
Amalia’s Mommy was wondering if she should talk to the child’s teachers, or a psychiatrist, about her obsession with death and old age, but I looked it up on line and discovered there are a lot of four-year-olds out there who don’t want to grow older and who ask disturbing questions about death. I think they don’t want to grow older because their lives are so terrific right now and they sense that older people have to deal with unpleasant things like homework, exams, lack of money and social insecurities….and death.
Questions about death are disturbing to us because we’re wondering the same things our children are, and we don’t know the answers. No one does.
As for the question above-- “Yiayia, can people in heaven see us down here?” --I told Amalia that nobody knows the answer to that question for sure, but I was convinced that when I was in heaven—and I didn’t plan on being there for a very long time, because I’m so determined to dance at her wedding—when I was in heaven looking down, I’d see all the great things that Amalia was going to accomplish as she grew up, and I’d be so proud of her.