Like a lot of kids (especially those with autism) my son is a picky eater. He's incredibly, sometimes inexplicably, selective about which foods are acceptable. For instance, he loves macaroni and cheese but only if it comes from a box. Any other kind of pasta is strictly off limits. And what was once perfectly palatable to him can change overnight.
But when he started refusing point-blank to eat dinner, I grew concerned. It didn't matter what was on the menu. He resisted. Turns out, after much detective work, the reason for his self-imposed hunger strike had nothing to do with food.
Because we often stress the importance of good food to help him grown and learn, he concluded that the only way to stop growing was to stop eating dinners. "I want to stay being a kid," he said. I tried to explain to my Peter Pan the virtues of growing up, but he was having none of it.
"I don't want to be a grownup because then you and Daddy will die."
Bam. His answer took my breath away. In recent years we had lost a few family members. At the time the losses barely registered with him, even though I was careful to explain death in simplistic terms. But he had gone and processed the loss and connected the dots in a way that made sense to him. Even if it didn't.
This time around I told him he would grow up no matter what he ate, and none of us would die until we were very very old and incredibly wrinkly. In other words, more wrinkly than we already are. (The truth - that life and death are ostensibly a lottery - is too much for most adults, let alone a seven year-old, to swallow.)
In the weeks that followed, death carried on following him around, casting its long shadow over his innocent playtime ("I want to be a dog because dogs don't die.") Sometimes I think we do our kids a disservice. I know I did. It's hard to gauge how much a child — especially one with a developmental disorder — understands and processes about the world around them.
Outwardly, the deaths in our family had little impact on my son, yet they affected him all the same. There was much work to be done. In a house where God doesn't feature, how do you explain death? I dug around for advice:
* DON'T euphemize death, saying a person is "lost" or "sleeping" because children will expect them to return. Instead say: When you die, you no longer breathe, eat, or sleep.
* DO reassure kids that they are loved and will always be cared for no matter what.
* DON'T brush off their questions but discuss them openly so that death doesn't become taboo or scary.
* DO use the construct of heaven for comfort, but understand that it is generally too abstract for kids under the age of five. Instead say: Some people believe in heaven, but no one knows for sure.
* DO let the child decide whether they will attend memorial services and funerals. While they can be good for closure, some services may be too distressing.
* DON'T hide your feelings. It's healthy to let children see you cry and understand that adults sometimes get sad, too.
* DO hold memorial services for pets. Encourage kids to make drawings or collate photo albums to celebrate times spent with a cherished animal.
I'm actually relieved that my son is thinking and talking about death because it's a normal stage of development for children. I know how we handle his curiosity and answer his questions right now will shape how he views death and copes with loss in the long run. I want to be sure he feels loved and secure - not to mention well fed.
Image: Nicolas Raymond