Last week, my daughter came home from school talking about the baby panda. The next morning, I turned over the KidsPost to her and her older sister to see more pictures of the National Zoo’s giant pandas. We later called up videos of the pandas on the computer and I dug out the worn old copy of their storybook about a baby panda.
We, like the rest of Washington, couldn’t wait to get a look at the cub ourselves.
Yesterday, I happened to check my e-mail in my daughters’ presence and discovered the sad news that the baby panda had died..
I gasped aloud. My daughter’s asked me why and I instinctively lied.
Lying to my kids about the harsher realities of life, and death, comes too naturally to me. I want to protect them and keep intact the fragile bubble of fantastical thinking because, I guess, I harbor a romantic notion of what they imagine life to be.
This is an incorrect assumption, experts and the late great children’s author Maurice Sendak have repeatedly tried to tell parents like me. They say leaving children to explain life’s questions to themselves is what nightmares are made of.
The Web site KidsHealth is one of many good resources for how to explain the concept of death to children of different ages. It details how to use concrete language with literal-minded younger children and how to incorporate the conversation into a larger discussion of belief and faith with older children.
Perusing the advice is also a bracing reminder that many families confront the “death talk” in far more difficult circumstances. Parents may face it when a grandparent or elderly family member falters. Or, they may have the wretched experience when death comes unnaturally or out of the assumed order of things.
In that light, the death of a baby panda is not a devastating gateway for the conversation.
A few months ago, a reader left a comment on a post about pet death that I, today, found to be an applicable bit of advice. That parent had lost his dog and grieved with his five-year-old. In the end, the loss led to several conversations about life and death. Worthwhile conversations.
“My advice is to trust your children,” he wrote. “Be open and honest, they can handle a lot more than you might think. Death is a reality that is best addressed before tragedy occurs. The death of a pet, soul crushing as it may be, is a great training ground. Consider that the silver lining to a really, really, dark cloud.”
That’s why this morning, I told my 3-year-old that we could not visit the panda. My five-year-old bounded into the room with a “What?!?”
I repeated myself and went on to explain that the baby cub had been too weak to survive. “Sometimes that happens. It’s very sad,” I said, deciding to err on the side of honesty.
Have you talked to your kids about the panda death?