By Anna Seewald
“I’m scared to close my eyes because I don’t want to die.”, my 4 year old neighbor Abby said as she pushed her tiny body closer to mine on the park bench.
Her wide-open, blue eyes were teary. Her voice-unusually serious.
The thoughtful expression on her face pierced my heart.
She had stopped me, during my daily walk in the neighborhood, to show me something furry and still under the bush in the playground area. She held my hand tightly and pulled me to the nearby bench.
It was a small chipmunk. Dead. Hit by a car or perhaps run over by a bike or a stroller.
We plopped our bodies on the old, concrete bench. She started talking.
“The chipmunk suffered…”
“He won’t see the future…
“He is dead.”
Her sentences hung in the air, as she continued talking and telling the story of the unlcuky creature. It was a warm and breezy early spring day.
I was mesmerized.
I took a deep breath, paused for a moment to take everything in and tried to be present with this little girl.
Her little body, her blue eyes and her sweet voice transported me into a new dimension. I stared into the blueness of the sky. The park was filled with people but the only thing I could hear was the sound of her voice.
Suddenly, she wasn’t the little girl I knew.
As a psychologist, I know that children this age are aware of mortality and can ask questions about death and dying. But how does she know what the word suffering means?
As I tried to sort out my puzzlement, she continued.
“Are you scared of dying, too, Anna?” She looked at me in anticipation.
Blood rushed to my head.
“Am I scared of dying?” I asked myself.
Seven days ago my dad had suddenly died. Death and my own mortality were in the forefront of my mind.
Is it my dad’s spirit speaking through her? Is he trying to say something to me? Was my dad scared of dying? Did he suffer?
“The chipmunk died. He won’t see the future…”, the little girl repeated.
There was deep sadness in her voice.
I knew this was an important moment. She might never remember this exact dialogue but she could be affected by this conversation forever. Could I be honest, present and not ruin it for her?
I took a gulp of courage and told Abby that I was, indeed, scared of dying.
I answered some of her questions, validated her inner experience and stroked her soft, golden hair. We talked about the future and I assured her that I was looking forward to seeing her grow and spending time with her in the future.
After our little chat she jumped off the bench, declared with her happy voice the name of the man she had just spotted and ran towards the bush where the chipmunk lay dead. I sat there frozen. What just happened? She had reverted to her usual self.
The man was Alonzo, the handyman, who had come to remove the chipmunk from the playground area. While he scooped the chipmunk with a shovel and placed him in the back of his truck, he offered an explanation to the small group of kids who were watching this whole thing carefully. “You don’t see a dead animal every day,” he said. “Jerry, the chipmunk, had run away from his mommy and gotten into trouble. His mommy just texted Alonzo and asked if he could bring Jerry home in time for dinner. ”
My little friend looked at me with a confident smile.
“That’s not true, right, Anna?” I shook my head.
We shared a secret.
Adults have a funny way of telling kids about death.
They hide the truth.
They say odd things like, “He is in a better place.” or “She is watching you.”
Mainly I think they want to protect kids-who already know the truth.
When my mother didn’t show up for several hours after the severe earthquake in Spitak, Armenia in 1988, I just knew: I would never see her again.
I was thirteen years old.
My poor Grandma, my mom’s mother, came in from another town to rescue us from the ruins of my hometown. She pulled my brother and I aside and told us what she herself probably wanted to believe; My mom had been severely injured, had two broken legs and that the foreign aid squad had flown her into a hospital in a far away country. Once she recovered, she would reunite with us.
I suspected the truth. How did she know? Who told her that information? And as far as I could tell those who had survived were slowly showing up.
I was enraged at my grandmother. “Why was she lying?”
I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for her to bury another child. This was the third child she had lost. Her first son, Razmik, had been killed by a car at age thirteen and her second son, Michael, had died of tuberculosis at age forty nine. My mom, Rose, was thirty five.
We never spoke about it again. And even though I knew the truth, for years I waited and yearned for my mom to call us from a foreign country.
For adults, death has a different meaning, it comes with the heavy weight of life experiences.
Kids take it in as truth—something to be understood and measured and discussed.
The pain of the truth is more bearable than the confusion and the cost that comes with the distorted version of the story.
My unresolved grief haunted me for years-it spilled over my life, colored my relationships and held me in its grip. I would get close to people and pull away when things got serious. I would struggle with endings and good-byes. I would crave closeness but fear the vulnerabilities of intimacy.
Now 33 years later, after having found love and security in a long marriage of 20 years, and after becoming a mother myself, I have finally found closure and meaning in my own grief.
And so, I felt compelled to tell Abby about the chipmunk: he won’t see the future but she will.