Friday, February 18, 2011

Cancer, Hitler & other fun topics

The questions are getting harder. I suppose that is what happens as children get older, smarter and more curious. I find myself struggling with each inquiry. Do I answer to educate or to preserve innocence a little bit longer?

Two years ago when our next door neighbor's 4 year old daughter Willa lost her life to cancer, we were able to brush over it. Zack asked no questions. Although our neighborhood was consumed with grief, my three old was fairly oblivious. I was able to hide my tears, and he paid no attention to hushed voices. I was relieved.

This past summer when our cat Wiggum passed away, Zack at first seemed unfazed. Weeks later he started to ask, why? Why did Wiggum die? I answered that when we get old, our bodies stop working. Again he asked, why? I responded that it was because our bodies were not made to last forever, they get worn out like old toys. A few days later he confided to me that he was afraid to get old and die. I told him the only thing that I could think of- "Don't worry, it won't happen for a very long time and when it happens you won't be afraid anymore." I sincerely would like to believe that. The questions continued over the next several weeks but eventually tapered off.

More recently daddy made the (un)wise decision to tell Zachary about a video game he played as a child. Something about Hitler and the S.S. When I overheard this conversation I was fairly disgusted by the whole thing. Even if the point of the game was to "get" Hitler, I felt that it trivialized the Holocaust, and Zachary was learning about this horrific part of our history as if it were a make-believe good guys/bad guys contest. I interrupted and tried to explain about Hitler in very simple terms. This has lead to many, many more questions. "Why did Mr. Hitler hate people?" "Who did Mr. Hitler hate?" "How did Mr. Hitler kill people?" "How did Mr. Hitler die?" "What was Mr. Hitler's middle name?" And on, and on. First, I have had to bite my tongue and refrain from telling Zack that there is no need to refer to Hitler as "Mr.", he doesn't deserve that much respect. That just seems confusing. But I have done my best to try and describe the events in general terms, sparing the gruesome details. I went so far as attempting a positive spin on the conversation. I brought up Martin Luther King and how he fought against hatred. I's a bit of a stretch, but I'm not ready to share all of this difficult reality with my five year old.

And now, we have sad news close to home. One of Zachary's favorite preschool teachers was just diagnosed with colon cancer. There it is again. Cancer. Unlike the tragic passing of Willa, Zack is now old enough to understand when someone isn't coming back. His teacher is very ill, I don't know what his future holds, but I am expecting the worst. And the questions are coming....again. "Why is Chris's body very sick?" "Will the doctors fix Chris?" "Is Chris going to die?"

Such difficult questions. Questions that shine a glaring spotlight on the painful reality that we cannot protect our children from life. We cannot eliminate all evil from the planet and we do not get to decide who gets sick and who dies.

And with each honest answer I provide, my sweet child's innocence is further eroded.


  1. Answering those toughies with honesty and integrity is the best route to take. They don't need all the details at the age of 5 to get the general understanding they are looking for. You can do it gently enough to maintain some of the innocence... but it is, unfortunately, inevitable, isn't it? (((hugs)))

  2. I have a parenting guru I go to with difficult questions, and she runs classes a few times/year. We had a class on this exact topic a few months ago, focusing on death and terrorism (so common here that the kids do in fact ask questions.) Since there's a "Holocaust Remembrance Day" here, they study Hitler in preschool! It's a very different culture - something I have yet to get used to. Ultimately, her advice is that the kids' questions, no matter how they are phrased, are really asking if YOU are going to die and if THEY are going to die, and your consistent answer and message needs to be "not for a very, very long time" to assuage their fears without lying.