death talk

Ryan came home the other day and said, “I told everyone at my school that my brother is dead.” (pause) “Wow…how’d that go for you?” I laughed. Not because it is funny, but mostly because it sounded (and is) so ridiculous. This is not what most kids are sharing when they come home from school. But clearly we are entering a new stage in Ryan’s development, and therefore his understanding of our family.

While we forge into this new life, there are no instructions. There is no “what to expect when your brother is dead” to guide us. So obviously we are doing our best to figure it out as we go. We respond the best we can to Ryan’s questions – always wanting Ben’s life (and therefore death) to be an open topic. But lately the questions have been coming almost daily – “Why did Ben get cancer? How did Ben get cancer? How did Ben die? How did he get to heaven? Who picked him up? When will he be not dead? When will he come back? How old is he there? Am I going to die?” And on and on… We have been told that “death talk” is normal at this stage of development – but most often it is associated with bugs or animals, grandparents or “bad guys” (which is another large topic of discussion in our house as well) – not when you are talking about your brother. But that is the reality of our family.

After doing the appropriate thing by contacting his teachers and inquiring about what he said, and if I could be helpful in any explanation, they assured me it was fine. Another child had been talking about the death of his grandfather – so it was a “natural” conversation. I guess I should be comforted in the fact that so far in our three years without Ben kids seem better at handling this than adults. Adults don’t know what to say. They are worried about saying the wrong thing – so they often don’t say anything at all, as I have mentioned here before. But kids have an easier time bridging the awkwardness of death conversation it seems. Their curiosity and lack of trained etiquette frees them to ask whatever they want. From Eddie asking us directly, “Why did Ben die?” to Noelle wondering why we didn’t sign Ben’s name on her Birthday card – it seems for kids there is no topic surrounding Ben’s death that poses some sort of Miss Manners etiquette quandary. They say out loud the questions most adults are afraid to ask – or won’t because of they don’t want to seem impolite.

There most likely will come a time when this changes. When Ryan, for social reasons, no longer wants to talk about Ben or our family’s story. But right now I am thankful the questions and conversations are coming, even if they are difficult or impossible to answer. For I want him to know his brother in the only ways he can. But it is hard to know that there is a part of this journey that he will have to take on as his own – that we can’t always be with him to guide or ease those discussions. I considered homeschooling for a brief moment – but when I realized US Weekly did not qualify as current events I knew I was out of my league.

This week at school Ryan is the “star student”. This is not an honor student bumper sticker kind of thing – trust me – every student gets their week of recognition. But he will have a chance to share about his family and what he likes to do with his class. Last year I chose to only send pictures of him and not “our family” because I didn’t want Ryan or anyone else in his class to feel uncomfortable or confused. But this year I have no idea what Ryan will chose to share – for clearly he has become more vocal about Ben and his death. So we will walk him down to school, drop him off and hope for the best – that he will learn how to share what is comfortable for him. And hope that along the way he will make friends who will support him in whatever ways they can.