How do you talk about death with children? With your parents? With yourself?
The winter season, when it gets dark so early and which this year is also a season of pandemic, seems to be the best for this kind of conversation.
I start with my children. I ask what was the first death they heard about.
First they lift their eyes from their iPads, surprised, as if they don’t know what I’m talking about. Then they shrug, as if the question doesn’t apply to them. And they’re right: luckily, during their eight-year life, nobody from the family has died yet.
Finally they reply with a question:
“What was yours?”
I tell them about my grandfather’s death. How I learned about it a year later. I remember that moment well. I was two years younger than my sons are today; I was driving with my dad in a Volkswagen Bug through wintry Warsaw in the 1980s. I looked at the snowflakes being swept aside by the windscreen wipers, dad turned on the radio, some song was on.
We started to argue about who was singing. In our family everybody has to be right, a situation that can’t always be reconciled. In the steamed-up car, things started to get tense. In the end I said we’ll ask granddad, he’ll definitely know.
Granddad was the court of highest appeal in the family (even in the area of radio hits), the final argument I could use.
Then my dad said: “Not anymore.”
That’s how I learned granddad had died a year earlier.
“Why didn’t your parents tell you right away?” asked Roman, who’s named after him.
“They explained that I was too little to go to a funeral.”
The boys nodded.
And then Emil suddenly remembered his first death: the father of a classmate.
“He went out with their mum for a walk, and then she came back alone and didn’t want to tell him where his dad was.”
“How do you know?”
“He told me. And that before he had gone skiing with his dad, and now he goes with somebody else.”
“When did he tell you this?”
“On Father’s Day. Because he always cries on Father’s Day. The whole class makes drawings and cards, and he doesn’t do anything. Last time, everybody had to cheer him up and we wasted the whole lesson.”
“And did you cheer him up?”
“No, I left him in peace.”
I also decided to leave them in peace already, and talk about departures, death, with my dad.
I quickly figured out that the matter is very delicate. Because how can I talk with him about it? So as not to wound him by pointing out his age and thus that this is a relevant subject for him.
It would be best if the initiative came from him, but what if that doesn’t happen?
So I start not from death, but from old age. I say I’m interested in what it’s like to get old, meaning what awaits me in 40 years.
But judging by his initial reaction, this wasn’t an auspicious start.
“It’s unpleasant,” Dad says. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But I just want to get some tips for how to prepare well,” I persist.
“Don’t bother me, it’s too much.” He can see I’m noting down our conversation on my phone. “And don’t write down what I’m saying!”
“Please just say when old age begins.”
“It begins when I no longer remember the questions you’ve asked me,” he says, cutting off the conversation and leaving the room.
In this situation I don’t go any further – I don’t get to the main idea, which interests me the most.
I’m left alone with it. Like everybody.
So much is said about coming to terms with death, but maybe it’s not possible at all? And in any case, not by talking about it with your parents.
Because what could they tell me, anyway?
I try to imagine, talking with myself:
“It’s always others who die, son. Only you know that you’re dying, and you’ll never learn that you’ve died. It’s only a tragedy for others.”
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino
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