“Does Aunt N have a vulva?” Our child, M, was not quite two, and our dear friend N was in town and at our house for supper. The question was not directed at N, but at me. I sighed. I have worked hard to cultivate a matter-of-factness about our bodies, including calling all of our body parts by their proper names. My spouse and I have also worked hard to be askable adults, to whom our child knows she can come with any question. It appears that we are succeeding on both counts, the consequence of which is occasionally inappropriate questions with houseguests.
I gently explained (again) that vulvas were private parts of our bodies, and that it isn’t polite or appropriate to ask this kind of question. My child nodded, then repeated, “Does Aunt N have a vulva?” I told her that most women do have vulvas, but private body parts of specific other people aren’t our business. (Here are two great blog posts about how to address these kinds of questions in a trans*-friendly way.) Eventually we were able to distract M and moved to other topics of conversations.
Honest talk about bodies is not something that bothers me in the slightest. I spent more than five years as a part-time sex and health educator with a Midwestern affiliate of a nationally-regarded (and often-protested) reproductive health care organization, and even before that, I was pretty comfortable talking about bodies (my beloved doesn’t quite share my lack of shame, but he’s trying). Additionally, openness and honesty are values we have consciously tried to cultivate in our family, not just about sexuality but about most things (is belief in Santa honest?).
That’s why, when my spouse’s grandfather died this last fall after a brief illness, it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t just tell our child why we were hurriedly packing our bags and pointing our car south for a trip to grandma and granddaddy’s house. But penises and vulvas are one thing – death is something else altogether. We stuck to the basic facts: Great-Granddaddy had been sick, he had died, and we were going to say good-bye. We knew she didn’t really understand what “died” or “dead” meant, and we were a little stuck on how to proceed. Despite all our best intentions to be clear and intentional and deliberate in many aspects of our parenting, we somehow knew we just had to wing it. This is what that looked like (and felt like):
At the visitation, gazing at the body in the open casket: “Is Great-Granddaddy sleeping?” M asked. “Yes, kind of,” I said. “He’s dead. That means he’s asleep forever.” Does she understand what forever means? “Asleep forever?” she asked, intrigued. “Yes, honey. That happens sometimes when someone is very sick.” Oh, my God, I hope she doesn’t think that the next time I get sick I’m going to die! “Well, and Granddaddy was very old, too. Not everyone who gets sick sleeps forever.” Except, of course, that we all will die one day. And, of course, young people also get very sick and do die. GAH! Stop overthinking! Answer the questions she’s asking!
Then, of course, I started to think about how to integrate this with our Christian faith and the resurrection. “You know, after we die, we – Christians – go to heaven to be with Jesus.” Ugh. Well, that’s not terribly articulate, but it’ll do. Except: how am I going to explain what happens to non-Christians who die? How can I explain universalism without making it seem like I think Christianity is the only way people come to know God? How do I explain that I am sure that somehow, in some way, in the Big Love that is God, we are reunited with Muslim and Jewish and Buddhist and maybe even atheist friends after we die? I don’t even know how God is going to sort this out. I probably should have said Great-Granddaddy is in heaven with God – that’s much more inclusive. But Jesus really does matter to me, especially when it comes to the resurrection. GAH! Stop already!
“Okay.” She then proceeded to cheerfully tell anyone who would listen that Great-Granddaddy was “asleep forever!” Which I’m sure they would have appreciated more if they weren’t so sad. The bluntness of early childhood can be bracing, even unnerving, for the grieving. We were all a little grateful when she decided to take a nap on one of the sofas during the visitation. Maybe all that talk of death tired her out.
The funeral went pretty smoothly, in part because the church provided child care and we could avoid the wiggles and the untimely questions. (Imagine hearing a toddler pipe up, “Asleep forever?” in the middle of a sermon!) And since then, we’ve had a variation on this conversation a few times. “Where is Great-Granddaddy?” she’ll ask, seeking reassurance that the answer hasn’t changed. And I tell her, “He’s in heaven with Jesus.” “He died?” she will follow up. “Yes, honey, he died.” You’ll notice that despite my desire for universalism and inclusivity to win out, I have continued to opt for “Jesus” instead of “God.” A two-year-old doesn’t want or need the same level of nuance that we need. It will come in time. I hope.
The good news is, like “The Sex Talk,” conversations about God, including death and dying, aren’t one-shot deals. They are a series of conversations that happen over the course of a lifetime, in the context of a loving relationship. We don’t get just one chance. So M can see that I’m sad when we talk about Great-Granddaddy, and about my own grandmother who died two years before she was born. But she also sees that it’s okay to talk about sad things.
When M said softly to me the other night, “I don’t want to die,” my heart ached with the fear and horror that she might, one day, die. But I also felt glad that she could share that with me. Oh, honey, I don’t want you to die, either. God willing, you won’t die for a long time.
And God willing, we’ll have lots more conversations like these. That, and vulvas.
Rev. Elizabeth Dilley is Minister for Ministers in Local Churches at the United Church of Christ national offices, where she works with conferences and associations to promote covenants of mutual accountability and support for authorized ministers serving in local congregations. She and her spouse, Paul, are parents to a toddler, M.