Out of the blue the other day at breakfast, Z's pink, plastic Dora the Explorer cell phone rang. (Creepy.)
"Hullo," she answered. "Mommy, it's for you. It's Grandma Rosalie. She's DEAD."
Then Z skipped off happily, leaving me wondering when exactly my little blond philosopher had morphed into Carol Anne Freeling—and how soon she'd start talking to the little voices in the TV (more so than usual).
Grandma Rosalie, my grandma, is, in fact, dead. She died about three years ago, when Z was 3 months old. They met only once. Grandma held her in the crook of her good arm at the nursing home, and we took dozens of pictures. She died a few weeks later. We sobbed at her graveside while Z babbled happily in her stroller.
Then came the death of Jasmine, our 22-year-old cat, two summers after that. Between the tears I searched the Interweb, looking for advice on how to explain death to a toddler who was asking nonstop—and nonjudgmentally—"Where's Jasmine?" My hubby and I came up with: "Jasmine was very, very old. She got very, very sick, and her body broke. And because she was so very old and so very sick, the doctors couldn't fix her. So she died."
Cue sobbing: mine.
Then, in some weird "Groundhog Day" continuous loop, Z would skip off happily, only to ask the next day, "Where's Jasmine." We added bits and pieces to our explanation: "She's not coming back, sweetie." "She's just gone." And, in one exasperated moment, "She's in heaven."
Z, looking up from her game: "What's heaven?"
Hubby: "It's where G-d lives."
Me (whispering fiercely): "Don't open THAT can of worms."
Z: "What's G-d?"
Me: "Who wants ice cream?"
It took another year and the teeniest, passing mention in the book "Fancy Nancy: Poet Extraordinaire!" for Z to finally come to terms, in her way, with death. Nancy says: "My mom loves poems that tell a story. She read 'Annabel Lee' by Edgar Allan Poe to me. It's about a beautiful princess who has died and the guy who will go on loving her forever. The poem is so sad, it's tragic. Warning: I bet reading this poem will make you cry too."
"Princess" was the magic word that got Z's attention. "Sad" and "cry" added a layer of emotion to what previously had been a stated fact. In all our discussions with Z about dying and death, they're the two words we neglected to mention.
Z doesn't talk about death too much, these days. But when she does, it never fails to take me by surprise. "Jasmine died," she might say forlornly, casting her eyes downward and off to some far away place. "She was very old, and her body broke. I'm so sad." It's the same thing when we look through family photo albums: "That's Grandma Rosalie. She died. I miss her."
But then she inevitably skips off happily, leaving the dwelling to the grownups. It seems to me a healthy approach. One I hope she'll hang onto for a long time to come.
And I wouldn't be surprised if Grandma Rosalie IS communicating with Z from the great beyond via a tacky, pink plastic Dora the Explorer cell phone. She'd be glad that Z's not dwelling on her death. It's just her style. (And Z's.)