Yesterday, as I drove to pick up my five-year-old from school, I saw a large electronic sign that had been parked by the side of the road to his school - the kind of sign the city uses to announce road work. It read, "WE WILL MISS YOU JUAN." I wondered who Juan might be and why the city was using its resources to post a message like that. Maybe someone special in the public works department?
On the return trip with my son, a massive funeral procession passed us (strangely, the second I'd seen in two days). At the front were two motorcycle cops, followed by a fire engine, more police cars, city vehicles, and then maybe 200 more cars. The scene was so striking that I immediately knew this was someone very special. Everyone on both sides of the 4 lane road pulled over and respectfully waited as the procession went by. The casket was in the back of a pickup truck with four brawny men sitting on each side of it - pallbearers, I guessed. I'd never seen a casket transported like that.
My son asked why we had stopped and what was going on on the other side of the road. I could have glossed over it, but I thought I might be able to lightly delve into the topic (I have to at SOME point). A lump in my throat, I pointed to the motorcycle cops and the approaching fire engine with the long line of headlights following it and told him, "it's a funeral procession - the largest I've ever seen."
I went on, "when someone dies, everyone who loved that person comes together to celebrate the person and say goodbye - that's what a funeral is. When the funeral is over, everyone follows the casket to the cemetery. They say prayers and then put the casket in the ground. This must have been someone very special, loved by many many people."
"That's sad," my son said. "Yes, very sad," I said, "maybe it was a firefighter, since there's a fire engine at the front of the line. Maybe the firefighter died saving people."
I went on to explain that every living thing dies one day - bugs, flowers, animals and people too. "I don't want to die, Mom!" Gulp! I said, "no, no, humans live a very very long time, sometimes 100 years if they eat right, get rest, exercise and keep learning. You are only 5 years old - you could live another 95 years! That is a very long time. Don't you worry about that." I then talked a little about heaven, that people who die go there and are very happy there with God. Thankfully, he seemed satisfied. Treacherous waters safely navigated - for now.
Traffic began to move again and we approached the intersection where the electronic sign was still flashing. I said to my son, "you know, I think his name was Juan. There's a sign there saying WE WILL MISS YOU JUAN - I'll bet that is for him. Wow, he was really loved. I wish we knew him - he would have been a wonderful person to know."
"Mom, I'm glad we know his name now. I wanted to know his name."
"Mom, will I have so many people there?" "Of course," I said, "at least as many. You are a wonderful boy and you will be a wonderful man. Many many people will love you very much in your life, as much as we love you now."
"Mom, if I forget, will you tell me his name again?" My throat caught a bit, "of course."
When is the perfect time to discuss death with a child and how do you go about it? I guess it would not be great to discuss it for the first time right after someone close to the child dies. I hope I made the right decision.