Jake is currently fascinated with the idea of death. He talks about it often, and I see this as his way of processing out loud. He likes to work out the details of things by repeating them, asking the same questions over and over, and re-checking to see if your opinion has changed. I say fascinated to mean only that he’s striving to understand, not that he watches zombie movies or kills things. He’s still a little miffed that people don’t film funerals. We’ve watched YouTube videos about how coffins get lowered into the ground.
He discusses Grampy (Ray) York’s funeral and death, and the “sad trumpet song” the day we buried my Aunt Donna’s ashes. Sad trumpet song was his own descriptor for Taps. I think it’s wonderfully insightful.
What I didn’t realize was that he didn’t fully understand death’s permanence.
Last night we brought #2 and #3 for their gymnastic lesson at the Old Town YMCA. He wanted to drop them off and go visit the “RIP stones.” Get it? R.I.P. stones? Pretty creative for a guy with limited language. Thank you SpongeBob Squarepants. There’s a graveyard we pass just before we get to the Y. He’d seen it on an earlier trip when there wasn’t time to sightsee.
We parked the car and began our exploration. He was fascinated by the sheer number of stones. He walked amongst them, mumbling about “all the dead people” and “the pretty RIP stones.” He even said that he hoped all of the people were in Heaven. I pointed out a marker for a woman born in 1865 that had died in 1964. He immediately said, “ninety nine years old?!” When we came across a small monument to two children, indicating their ages of 1 and 3 at the time of their death, he looked for a moment before asking, “Were kids sick?” This tells me that A) his math skills are pretty good, and B) he is able to take that information and make the next intellectual leap forward with it.
After he was satisfied that we’d visited all four corners, we sat together on a bench for reflection. He turned to me and asked what his RIP stone would look like. I told him that I didn’t know. He said he’d be an angel in Heaven, so he could just fly down and check it out. I told him that would be lovely. He said he’d like to be dead only for “a couple years” before being alive again. I told him that once you’re dead, you’re dead forever, but also that we believe that we’ll live in Heaven forever with Jesus. I told him that Grampy York and Aunt Donna would be there, and so would Beth and I and his brother and sister. He said he didn’t want to be dead forever. Maybe 100 years, but no more.
I tried to explain that it doesn’t work that way, and once he’s in Heaven he won’t mind staying. He didn’t believe me. He grabbed his stomach like he had a cramp, and winced. He said his belly was scared. I tried to rub his back and assure him that everything would be OK, and that he didn’t have to worry about being dead until he was a very old man. I was hoping he’d have already forgotten about the toddlers’ grave. He shrugged me off.
“Let’s go back,” he said. I loaded him into the car and we went to watch the rest of the gymnastics lesson. He teared up a bit when he saw Beth. He said his belly was scared, and that he had deleted all of his RIP stone pictures from his iPad. I got the dirty look from Beth. “What did you tell him? He’s been fascinated by cemeteries, and now he’s crying. What did you do?” I tried to plead my case, and that maybe the lesson had finally sunk in.
I told him all the things parents tell their kids – Heaven is wonderful and we’ll all be there; you don’t have to worry; you’ll die when you’re very, very old; everyone eventually does, etc.
Another hard lesson, I guess. I did some research, and it looks like kids start to understand death as irreversible at about age 4. The two other aspects of death, dubbed nonfunctionality and universality, are often fully understood by 7. These mean that dead bodies can’t do things living bodies can, and that everyone is going to die. This leads, says this article I’m plagiarizing, to questions about what dead people feel, and if dead people dream, etc.
Jake’s 14 now, and again we’re playing catch up. I’m curious to see what happens next. Will the obsession end? Will new and deeper questions take its place? He’s told Beth he no longer wants to visit RIP stones.
How old were the children in your life when they finally “got” death? I’m not sure about when Gabe and Liv got there.