The wailing came from MaggieBeth unexpectedly. My 4-year-old’s cries were a sure sign of agony.
“I don’t want that man to die!” she sobbed, tears streaming down her face.
I grabbed her, held her tightly and let her cry.
“It’s OK, honey. It’s OK. A lot of people didn’t want that man to die either,” I tried to reassure her as my thoughts darted from “What have I done?” to “What can I say to comfort a preschooler whose witnessing a funeral?”
I bawled with her. I felt guilty.
At that moment, I thought I had done the wrong thing, letting MaggieBeth and her 3-year-old sister, Lauren, watch the hilltop burial service of former President Ronald Reagan in California.
I reached for the remote, but they said, “No, Mommy, no.” The TV stayed on.
My daughters don’t know Reagan or his politics. Later, in their school years, they’ll probably learn that he was the 40th president who survived an assassination attempt and presided over the close of the Cold War.
That time is off in the future. But the memorial coverage became a learning tool about death in our household. It was a time to explain the concept of life to children who cannot even comprehend that the world existed before they were born.
It was challenging. Do I protect them – shelter them – from exposure to the topic or do I allow them to process the information in their own ways?
At first I thought that maybe I turned on the television too many times that week. My intentions were simple, yet naive.
One night during the week of the services for Reagan, all I wanted was for my daughters to calm down before I began the struggle of putting them to bed. Turning on C-Span, I thought the solemn procession of people filing past the former president’s flag-draped casket, might be a quiet, mesmerizing slowdown to our day.
Or so I thought.
“What’s that box? Why is there a flag over it?” MaggieBeth asked.
I tried to explain that a man has died. He was a former president of the United States. Many people liked him. And he is lying in that box, which is called a casket, because he is dead.
“Can he breathe in there? Can he get up and walk?” MaggieBeth continued.
“No, honey, he can’t,” I replied calmly. “When someone dies, they can’t breathe anymore and they can’t walk anymore. Their body can’t do anything anymore.”
“Can he go to the bathroom in there?” Lauren, my urologist in training, piped up. That’s important stuff to 3-year-olds.
I switched channels to find a picture of Reagan so they could put a face to the man who died. Another station was showing a snapshot of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. I explained to the girls that she is very sad now because her husband is no longer here.
“How come?” they both wanted to know.
“Because he is dead.”
“Because people die. He was very old and he got very sick.”
The conversation turned to our family. They asked me if I was going to die, and I said what I thought was appropriate – “not until I’m much older because I want to see you girls grow up.”
“Buster died,” MaggieBeth noted, referring to our cat, Buster Brown, who had to be put down last year.
“Yeah, he was old and he had trouble pooping,” Lauren added.
That’s how I had explained Buster’s death to them, in words that a preschooler could understand. I couldn’t tell them that the cat’s systems were shutting down. They would have said, “Huh?”
Again, I wondered if I had explained Buster’s death the right way. Would they think they are going to die if they have trouble going to the bathroom one day? I hoped not.
Two days later, returning from MaggieBeth and Lauren’s “graduation” ceremonies at All Saints Child Care in Bangor, the subject of death surfaced again. We had been talking about something lighter, but my daughters change the subject faster than they change into their pajamas at night.
“I’m not going to die,” MaggieBeth declared as I looked at her in the rearview mirror. “I’m going to watch my children grow up and we’re going to die at the same time.”
“You can do that, honey,” was all that I could bring myself to say.
Once home, I turned on the TV to check the weather forecast for Saturday. Reagan’s funeral was on the screen again. MaggieBeth would not let me change the channel.
Lauren snuggled under a blanket at one end of the couch while MaggieBeth did the same on the other side.
The questions came again. Then a lull.
Then MaggieBeth started crying. I didn’t know what to do except hold her.
Since that time, I have agonized over whether my responses to their questions were appropriate. I’ve second-guessed myself. Yet my daughters’ inquiries keep coming and my answers haven’t changed.
One Web site, www.hospicenet.org, advises parents not to avoid the subject of death just because they believe it’s a topic that children won’t understand. Instead, the site encourages parents “to try” to be sensitive to their child’s desire to communicate and “to try” not to put up barriers that may inhibit a youngster’s attempts to communicate.
Offer them honest explanations, the site recommends. Listen and accept their feelings and do not put off their questions by telling them they are too young. Keep your answers simple and brief – “answers that they can understand and that do not overwhelm them with too many words.”
OK. I did that. I tried. That’s the best I could do.
After MaggieBeth stopped crying that night, she curled up beside me as I sat on the floor next to the couch. Lauren still was under the blanket, nearing sleep.
I stretched out my arm and held Lauren’s hand. I wrapped my other arm around MaggieBeth.
Lauren dozed off while MaggieBeth and I stayed up until midnight to watch the sun set on Reagan – “the man who died” – in California.
I wasn’t going to put her to bed. She wouldn’t go anyway.
Besides, we were having one of life’s special moments.
Deborah Turcotte is the Bangor Daily News business writer. She can be reached at 990-8133 and firstname.lastname@example.org.