Jennifer Golden was astounded at her ability to find the words to tell her daughter her baby brother was dying.
I hoisted my daughter off the pavement, perching her on my hip as I brushed the silky gold strands of hair from her eyes. At three, Hannah was already getting too big for me to carry this way, but I needed her reassuring heft to ground me for the conversation we were about to have.
Otherwise, I feared, I would simply evaporate into the sky. We were walking through pristine gardens toward the entrance of the Halquist Memorial Inpatient Centre in Arlington, Virginia, a hospice facility where my 16-month-old son had been admitted two days prior. We had brought Hannah here to say goodbye to her brother.
"This is a special hospital, baby. It is a hospital for people who are about to go to heaven." The social workers had warned my husband and me to avoid speaking in code when discussing Luke's condition with Hannah. People died, they weren't "going to sleep." Luke was in hospice, not a hospital. I needed to clarify the shorthand we had been using the last couple of days, lest my daughter believe that every time someone she loved went into a hospital, they weren't coming out. This was especially imperative now, since, two days before - the day Luke was admitted to the facility - we confirmed that I'd be in a hospital in about nine months, giving birth to our third child.
Hannah's sweet face twisted into a grimace. Fat tears sprung from her eyes. "Luke's not going to die, is he, Mommy?" she cried. I was shocked by the speed with which she processed these thoughts: heaven equals death equals grief.
I looked straight into her sad eyes - we were both crying now. Answer the question that is asked, the hospice social worker had advised. Be direct. Be honest. Be brief.
"Yes sweetie, I think he is."
Even at the time, I was astounded at my ability to find the words to tell my daughter her baby brother was dying. It felt like the emotional equivalent of the mother who lifts an impossibly heavy object off the child trapped beneath. But although I hope to never endure a similar conversation again, I have followed that social worker's guidance many times since: Answer the question that is asked. Children, even at age three, are remarkably disciplined about asking the question they want answered, and they have an enviable ability to accept that answer at face value.
So, several months later, as my belly swelled with Hannah's sister growing inside, I followed the same advice when she asked, "Mom, how does the baby get out of your tummy?" We were crowded into a bathroom stall at a restaurant; I could hear snickering coming from the next stall. After a momentary flash of panic about explaining the birds and the bees to my toddler in the bathroom of a Chili's, I paused, collected my thoughts and answered the question that was asked.
"I imagine she'll come out the same way you did - through my vagina."
Pause. Wait for the coin to drop.
"Does it hurt?
"Yes, but our bodies are made to do it that way. And the doctors help."
"Can I get ice cream?"
Fast forward a year or so, when that now-five-year-old asked, "If all a man and woman do at a wedding is dance and kiss, how does a baby get made?" At least we were at home for the conversation this time.
I have employed the answer-the-question-that-is-asked technique on any number of dicey topics.
When visiting Luke's grave:
Q: "What is this stone for?"
A: "It marks where Luke's body is buried."
Q: "So his body is under this dirt?"
A: "Yes, it's in a coffin under this dirt."
Q: "But it's probably just bones and stuff now."
A: "Yes, probably."
Q: "Why are you crying?"
A: "I'm sad. I miss Luke."
And on death more generally:
Q: "Am I going to die?"
A: "Everyone dies sometime, but I think you'll live for a long time."
Q: "How do you know?"
A: "Most people live a long time, until they are old."
Q: "Are you going to die?"
A: "Sometime, but I don't think it will be for a long while, until you are all grown up yourself."
Answering the question that is asked is the first step. The tougher part is fighting the urge to elaborate on that answer once delivered. I think of it as a "full-stop" approach, requiring disciplined conclusiveness: Listen to the question; answer that question and that question only; full stop; wait for the next question.
The strategy has enabled me to break down complicated, weighty issues into "bite-sized" pieces that are more manageable for a kid's developing brain to process. It gives the child time to digest the information she has heard and come back for more when she is ready.