Stories Take Dark Turn As Child Casually Explores Death
Don’t ask what happened to the chicken
I know very few people who enjoy talking about death and dying, but I would like to believe I am in the 99th percentile of people who dislike the topic and do everything they can to avoid it. I spent a considerable portion of my early teen years living with a deep sense of dread regarding oblivion and the hereafter, and I can manage even today to play out the smallest physical ailment to its most terminal cause, triggering a wave of panic that crashes on the shore of “your life is a pinprick in an endless fabric of nothingness”. I should probably get a therapist.
In any case, I knew that this phase of early childhood development was coming. My friends with kids had told me about it, and “Why Do 4-Year-Olds Love Talking About Death” was one of the NYT Parenting newsletters I read most avidly when it showed up in my inbox. In that newsletter, my Parenting cofounder Jess Grose writes about the four concepts that we all come to associate with death: your body doesn’t work, everybody dies, they don’t come back, and you can’t avoid it. If you ask me, these subconcepts get progressively more disturbing as the list unfolds. If you ask Kina, Hello Kitty is dead and she can’t come to the picnic.
It’s fine that Hello Kitty can’t come to the picnic if she’s just temporarily dead, which I assume is Kina’s current understanding of death. But after the last year of my life, and with all the loss suffered by the people around me, and with friends currently living through the unimaginable hellscape that is COVID-19 in India, I have a really hard time dealing with the notion that Hello Kitty, the most reliably immortal being in my house, has died. Kina doesn’t know that she’s freaking me out by making me tell bedtime stories about one of her friends dying, because she has no idea what it means. She will, eventually, though, and I am really not looking forward to that part.
Maybe that’s what all the years of anxiety have been training me for, though. Maybe as she comes to terms with the pinprick into which her entire life, and mine, and her mother’s, are nestled, I’ll be there to explain what I know about it—and what I never will. The unlisted fifth subconcept of death is what it precedes, and humans have spent a lot of time debating this over the years, to absolutely no avail. It’s a question I remember failing to extract an answer for when I was young, and on one hand I am really afraid of the moment I won’t have an answer for Kina. On the other, though, I can be with her in that terrifying mystery in an intimately familiar way. I know more about the answer I’ll never have than just about anybody else I know. I wish I didn’t, sometimes.
I should probably not assume this will be a big deal for my particular mortality apprentice. I certainly hope that Kina has a more measured and contemplative approach to mortality than I do, for her sake and mine, and the odds are in favor of it; unless we’re all not talking about it, I think I’m probably more scared than the rest of you, combined. Kina, on the other hand, regrets to inform you that the imaginary chicken is dead. Don’t worry, though. He’ll be fine.