"Mommy, let's pretend this isn't a train tunnel."
"Okay, what is it?"
"It's a tomb."
Well, hello, conversation stopper. She paused for effect, which is a good thing, because I certainly didn't expect that. After a moment to process and very consciously trust that children's play serves an important purpose for them, I mentally cringed while inquiring, "Is anyone in there?"
"Yep, a dead person."
She smiled lovingly at me, just content to be playing.
I have to admit that this already wasn't my favorite game, and although I didn't know who was inside, I was hoping for some miraculous resurrection of sorts.
"Was it anyone we know?"
"Nope, it's not. It's just some man. He's dead in there."
Well, at least it's no imaginary person we know. Somehow that made it better for me, the adult who should be able to handle a child's imagination.
Still, I waited for the punchline and trusting her play, looking for some clue as to where this was going.
"What happened to him?" I asked tentatively.
"A cow sat on him. And then a car drove on top of the cow."
Well, that would certainly do it. Although she knows bodies stop working when someone dies, we haven't spent much time discussing the specific mechanics of the process.
Then, she added, "Yeah, he was really, really old, like Grandpa Herb."
Click. Now, I see what's happening. Grandpa Herb is actually my grandfather; her great grandfather. As I write this, he's a 95-year-old with a body that's more ready to go than his brain is.
I reminded her that Grandpa Herb is still alive, but she proceeded me to remind me that he's "really, really old and probably won't live much longer."
He might have another decade ahead of him, but he might not. She's bright enough (as kids are) to pick up on pieces of the adult conversations to know that we talk about his life and medical situations differently than we do others'.
Just like we do as adults, kids need to process when change is coming; especially when it's such an abstract concept as this (for all of us). We rarely discuss death with children unless it's necessary, so it's particularly foreign to them when it happens. We can read helpful books like this one and this one (afflinks) to help cover the bases. I can trust that her play is helping her process just as she needs to. And she can ask all the questions she wants to, and I'll do my best to answer them according to our belief system. Of course, I can't tell her what dying is like, though, because it's never happened to me.
So, until then, we find ways to make peace with the unknown. We need to somehow make the intangible, tangible. We need to know that when the time comes, we'll have done something to prepare, because we all want to do something.
Some might call this "game" macabre and make that resurrection manifest somehow, or insist that it's a train tunnel and nothing more. For us, it became a way to process and discuss one of life's Big Topics, using the means my child knows best: learning through play. It's within her power to play; the more she can process it in her own terms without me imposing my agenda on her, the more she can begin to grasp and reconcile the concept. And the more she can be ready for the inevitable, be it for Grandpa Herb or for a goldfish, the less jarring it will be for this child.
Personally, I'm going to beware of sitting cows for awhile. More than that, however, I'll continue to trust that play needs to happen, exactly as it is.