Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sex and death, part two: tough conversations

When Ezra was five months old I wrote a blog post titled Sex and Death. I imagined future conversations Ezra and I would have on these complex and emotional topics, and what I would find difficult versus easy to discuss. Three years later, I am still anxiously waiting for these talks to begin. 

My anxiousness is not from dread, but anticipation. I am eager to hear Ezra’s thoughts, questions, and misconceptions about these essential aspects of life. I look forward to learning what sparks his curiosity, guiding his understanding, and hopefully creating a safe place for him to come as his questions become more complicated, more personal and possibly more embarrassing.

I realize the importance in allowing Ezra to initiate these conversations. His curiosity is a great gauge for what he is developmentally capable of understanding, but I feel a little impatient. I had assumed that by now we would have already had a few minor talks about the subject many parents dread most: where babies come from.

Amanda and I are not too guarded when talking about reproduction, and while Ezra and I are playing I will, unintentionally, say something that makes me think, “hmmm, this is going to lead to an interesting question.”

For example, when we are talking about animals, often dinosaurs, we sometimes list features that distinguish mammals. One, mammals have hair. Two, infant mammals nurse. Three, mammals (with a few odd exceptions- weirdo monotremes) do not hatch from eggs, but grow inside their mommies. I remind him that he is also a mammal. I then wait for an inevitable, “how did I get inside my mom?” question, but so far nothing.

His interest in reproduction will probably increase with both age and when it has more impact on his life. Later this year Ezra is going to become a cousin for the first time. I assume his inquisitiveness will expand along side his aunt's belly. 

I have always been more nervous to discuss death with Ezra than sex. Fortunately, Ezra’s curiosity about death is not much stronger than it is about sex so the topic rarely comes up.  A degree in philosophy is probably not in his future. 

The one time Ezra did have questions about death was last year when our cat, Stella, passed away. I still regret how poorly prepared I was to answered his questions. I was so vague about what had happened to Stella and why Amanda and I were sad that I added to his confusion. I even avoided using the words dead or death to explain her absence. I knew I was being unfair to him by not explaining what had happened better, but I was at a loss to know where to draw the line between adequate answer and too much information. The emotions of losing our pet made the conversation even more difficult. So, I have hoped for a chance to start that conversation over.

A few weeks ago we had a second opportunity to talk to Ezra about death. This time he was the one reluctant to have the conversation. Buttercup the class pet at Ezra’s preschool died at the ripe old age of eight. I had no idea that the life expectancy for guinea pigs was so long. Mine were never so lucky, and provided my parents with plenty of opportunities to talk to me about death. Though we acknowledged the passing of Buttercup, Ezra was not that interested in talking about it, and we did not push him. After a few days, I did bring up Buttercup. The conversation was short.

“Are you and your friends sad about Buttercup no longer being in your class,” I asked.


“Do you understand what happened to Buttercup?”

“Yes, she’s dead. We put her in a hole in the ground,” he explained in a matter of fact tone, and then changed the subject.

I don’t think he was avoiding talking about it because it was upsetting. At this moment in his life, he is learning to navigating his relationships and interactions between himself and his friends at school. He is preoccupied with his own difficult conversations that do not involve me, and death is not something that dwells in his thoughts for long. I am grateful that is the case. I also realized that the simple explanations I had avoided when discussing Stella, that she had died and was gone, was all that he was seeking.

At three years and four months old, Ezra and I are only just beginning to have "big talks." Not all of the conversations have been successful in helping Ezra to better understand the world, but have been wonderful at teaching me that these "big talks" begin as nothing more than small conversations.

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