Until Death Do Us Part

We had a rough past week, with both a death and another severe health crisis in our extended family on the same day. Our phone rang off the hook for two days, and it was hard to explain to our kids why we were so distracted. The 2 year olds had no clue, of course, but 4-year-old Big Sister understood quite a bit. She needed reminding occasionally, since she doesn’t yet understand the permanence of death, but she was capable of more empathy and understanding than I expected. And she asked questions. Some I answered easily, especially since we pass a cemetery on the way to preschool and it’s been a topic of conversation in the car for months. Other times, I found the best answer was, “I don’t know,” and was surprised at how easily she accepted it.

Ironically, death has been on my blogging agenda anyway because we listen to an awful song in the car. You may know it. “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die.” The song ends with the old lady swallowing a horse, so “she’s dead, of course.” I hadn’t heard it before and couldn’t believe it was on a kid’s collection CD! Turns out the song has been a children’s song for years, and a popular version was recorded by Burl Ives in 1953 (http://tinyurl.com/3o9au38).

Despite missing that song, I took part in plenty of other morbid rhymes during my childhood, like the dandelion game where we flicked the flower off the stem and recited, “Mama had a baby and its head popped off.” It was just silly from my child perspective, but my adult mind is a little horrified! And almost every fairy tale and Disney movie has death and horror as main themes. Big Sister and I started watching Snow White recently, but we didn’t make it past the first 10 minutes, when the huntsman takes Snow White into the forest to kill her. It’s well known that Grimm’s Fairy Tales have been toned down for modern sensibilities, but the original folktales the brothers collected are the stuff of horror stories. The Hansel and Gretel story published in 1812 would be an R-rated movie today. The children are deliberately walked into the woods and abandoned by their parents, who can’t afford to feed them, and then they stumble into the enticing gingerbread cottage of a cannabalistic witch. And we worry about what our children are exposed to in the media in 2011!

All this confirms something I’ve long suspected: That children can handle more than adults give them credit for. They have their own coping mechanisms and belief systems to help do this, but those are no less effective than adult methods. Maybe they’re sometimes more effective. Adults tend to deny and rationalize the realities of illness and death because of discomfort in confronting it head on. Children seem to do better at accepting both as part of life, and meanwhile living life to the fullest every day that they can. Halloween is just 2 weeks away, and my kids aren’t fazed by the neighborhood displays of skulls, tombstones, and creepy undead creatures. I wonder if all that is a grownup attempt to thumb our noses at The Grim Reaper and make a joke of the reality. But kids accept it and walk right past it to get the candy and enjoy life.

I think it’s interesting that modern fairy tales and mythology, like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson (and I’m sure you could name many more), are categorized as young adult books, but they’ve attracted an enormous adult following. Neither of those series are childish, but instead prove young people’s courage in confronting suffering, sacrifice, and death. Maybe grownups can learn something from them, as well as from our own children.

My 4 year old understood that I had to go to a funeral this week, and at least once a day since then, she has spontaneously said, “Remember your uncle? “ I smile at the memory of a wonderful man and reflect. Isn’t that what we all hope someone will say about us?

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. neva Jones Pavia
    Oct 14, 2011 @ 17:27:44

    In a conversation with friends about our favorite stories as kids the recurring theme was death and dismemberment. I remember being terrified by the witch in Snow White and my sons had the same reaction to Land before Time. My daughter, despite being terrified by the witch/dragon in Sleeping Beauty, managed to wear out our first VHS tape of it. Grimm’s Tales were intended as moral and life lessons and one of the biggest of these is that people, even good people, die


    • abbyplambeck
      Oct 15, 2011 @ 20:35:02

      Neva, we’ve tried Sleeping Beauty several times, and my crew finally made it all the way through just a couple days ago. There are so many life lessons in “kids'” movies and books. I think it’s a shame when adults write them off!


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