How do you explain death to a three year old?

Live Oak, Florida is in the middle of the woods. How David’s grandparents found their way to this small town is still curious to the family.  Yet it is where they settled into their retirement. Nestled in their property with various structures named “the carriage house,” “the garden room,” and “the barn” they built a true pioneer’s oasis. I visited three times: once when David and I were still newly acquainted, once for Thanksgiving, and just this past weekend for David’s grandfather’s memorial. Dick died on Sunday, August 19. As often happens with death, his passing was a shock to the family and all descended onto Live Oak to pay their respects and to be close to one another.

Unlike David, I have experienced the passing of a number of older family members. Now, this is not something to brag about but it does distill a certain calm and quiet through my bones. For David though, the business of dying, staying behind, and saying goodbye was new. As we boarded the airplane, he was not sure what feelings the service might evoke. I promised to be by his side throughout the process, no matter if he cried or not.

And while I did not forget my promise to support my husband, I found myself often considering the experience of Alex, my three year old nephew. Full of energy and exuberance, I was curious if at the service he would somehow understand that his “great pop-pop” had died and that the grown-up social cue for reverence was expected.  Yet, how do you explain death and reverence to a three year old? He asked many questions, yet he was particularly interested in the process of cremation: “Is great pop-pop burned?” “Where do they do it?” “Why do we spread him?” “Did it hurt?” “Do ashes last forever?” I overheard his mother giving beautifully thoughtful and diligent responses to his inquiries. Yet, as with all three year olds, he nodded and hurriedly ran off to the next thing. Yet later when that “next thing” had lost its newness, he returned to this cremation topic and stated emphatically that “I want my ashes to be spread by daddy.”

When the memorial service began, we all took our places under a little canopy in front of an old oak tree. Sitting in the third row, I wrapped my arm around David and nestled Alyza, my niece, onto my lap. We sat still during the eulogy, sat still as  guests came forward to share memories, and sat still as taps played like an echo in the distance. Alex sat in front of us. During those twenty minutes, he watched with wildly curious eyes as the adults around him wiped away tears, squeezed hands together more tightly, and listened to the bugle play. I have no idea how Alex processed this. While David could logically and rationally discuss his emotions, memories, and sentiments, Alex was not yet equipped to do so. What of these events would he remember? What of these events effected him most? What of his memories of “great pop-pop” will he be able to recall?

A little after the memorial, it was time to spread Dick’s ashes around the property.  Live Oak was something he had dreamt, built, and cherished and it was the place where he felt most at home. Therefore, there was no better place for him to rest than on those grounds. Each of us took a turn. First, David’s grandmother, father, uncle, aunt, brother, and then it was Alex’s turn. He looked deeply into the little lacquered box and asked again “Is this great pop-pop?”  His mom replied yes, and Alex took the scoop in his hand and with a quiet devotion that only a three year old could authentically muster he spread the ashes on the meadow. His mother went for her turn and with tears in her eyes took her scoop. It was then that little Alex cried out, “You took too much!” And the sober affair was punctured by genuine laughter. Alex represented the epitome of resilience. He had said his good bye to his “great pop-pop” and demanded to continue to live life, to laugh, to be playful, to have fun, and embrace the moment which was exactly how his “great pop-pop” lived every day of his life.

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