The day my daughter understood death

Last night, Natalie asked about death.

We sat on her bed and read poems together. I finished one about a kid who was feeding his teacher all sorts of horrible gross kinds of foods, a poem that ended with a fingers-crossed hope that his teacher wouldn’t die from this horrible diet.

Nat put her hand on my forearm, and stopped me from reading more.

She said, “What does die mean?”

There it was. The moment. It had arrived. Not the moment in which Nat would talk about death, but the moment in which she wanted to know about death. That she recognized that she didn’t know what it was and wanted to learn.

Here I was, wrapped up in my fumbling and fretting about her struggle to understand if 7 was larger than 6. And here she was, wanting me to explain the concept of death to her.

So I told her, “When you die, you close your eyes and never open them again. You stop dreaming. You stop listening. You stop tasting and feeling. You stop thinking. Everything just stops.”

She rolled over on her side. We were quiet, until she rolled back and looked at me.

“Gordon died.”

Gordon was our hamster, and he died months ago. When it happened, she laughed and poked him, and told him to wake up. She continued laughing as she followed me downstairs, as she watched me dig a grave and bury him at the foot of the alder tree in our back yard. Then she went inside, sat on her bed, flipped pages in her book, flapped her hands, and made up stories about pigs and wolves and brick houses. Just like she always did. She never asked about Gordon again.

Now, at last, she says to me, because she finally understands, "Gordon died."

I nodded. “He did.”

“I was sad.”

 “No you weren’t,” I shook my head. “Your mom was sad, but you weren’t. You didn’t know what was going on.”

I held my breath, wondering what the next thing would be. Then I saw it. This moment, this sudden moment, in which she had come to an understanding. Not just a skimming of the surface, either, but a deeper understanding, a knowledge of death and every secret it carried with it. And now I was a little afraid.

But then she said, “I don’t want to die.”

I answered – and lied – “You’re not going to die.”

That was almost good enough for her, but I could see her struggling, so I stepped a little further into this new meadow we were in.

“Some people believe that, when you die, you don’t disappear. Part of you still stays.”

“Where’s Gordon?”

“He’s here, but you can’t see him.”

“He’s invisible?”

“You can see him with your heart.”

“My heart can’t see.”

 I brushed back a lock of her hair. “It can see,” I said.

"It can see Gordon?"


A moment passed.

"Can we have waffles in the morning?" she asked.

"I don't see why not."

“It’s okay to be sad,” she said after thinking some more, and I told her it was sometimes the right thing to be.

She was quiet, looking up at me.

 “I’m going to be sad for a bit more,” she sighed and turned on her side. "And then I'm going to have waffles."

 I kissed her on her forehead and turned out the light. "You do that," I said, and as I closed the door behind her, I heard her.

 "Goodnight, Gordon," she whispered.

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