These unexpected moments of pure childhood compassion take my breath away. Recently, poor weather conditions apparently led to a collision between a bird and our car. Henry (age 5) found it caught in the car grill. It was already dead.
He began to cry, uncontrollably shaking, until finally he choked out, “This is the most beautiful bird that I have never seen before. I’m so sad. My heart is cracked. Look. Black and brown and pink and gold. So beautiful. This is just terrible. A terrible, terrible, accident.”
Young children experience death in a variety of ways. Make no mistake, they have seen and heard about death. Sometimes in small ways, dead bugs or dead animals or in story books. Sometimes in big ways, death of a family member or family friend or a beloved pet. These difficult conversations are hard for most parents, and especially harder when we are also grieving.
We extricated the bird and placed gently to rest in the grass. George (age 3) and Henry both wanted to see the bird. Victoria (age 3) and Alexandra (age 3) both expressed disgust and stayed in the car. George took one look at the bird and said, “Ew, gross. That’s so cool. When will it start breathing again?”
I believe that when my littles ask questions, I answer. And I aim my answers in ways that they can understand. At this age, I try to provide simple responses in physical terms. Recognizing that they don’s understand the death is permanent, and euphemisms may only increase their anxiety (e.g., “he is sleeping peacefully” may lead them to be afraid to go to sleep!).
So, I took a deep breath, and said, “This little bird was very hurt and his body won’t work anymore.”
George: “When we get hurt we die?”
Mama: “Not usually. Remember when you hurt your toe? We cleaned it out and bandaged it and now you are healing.”
George: “Yeah, I am all better. But the bird can’t get better. Can we go to the playground?”
Mama: “Yes, soon. Henry isn’t quite ready.”
I know that young children can’t sustain grief. That, unlike adults, they shift between playfulness and sadness quickly. I watched Henry, looking for a way that he could naturally grieve.
I watched as Henry knelt beside the little bird and placed both of his hands over his heart and closed his eyes. I asked him what he was doing, and he replied, “I’m listening to my little bird’s soul sing his way to heaven.”
Mama: “Yes, we are so sad that this little bird can’t live here with us anymore and it is comforting for you to know that he is with God now.”
I waited with Henry until he stood back up and held his little hand as we walked away.