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Making sense of death for my 5-year-old — and myself

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“How many more days until everyone dies, Mama?” my son asked me at bedtime. I was about to sing him a lullaby, and in a futile attempt to buy time … I … lied.

“Sorry, Señor, I, uh — I don’t have my hearing aid on.”

I do wear a hearing aid for my left ear — my right ear has significant damage that a hearing aid can’t fix, the fallout from strong antibiotics to reduce the swelling in my brain when I had meningitis — and I did have it on. I had heard him, but my heart told me to deflect the question.

“‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ tonight?” I asked.

“Mama! How many more days until we all die?” he said, practically shouting so that I could hear him better.

Earlier that day, we had discovered Rocky, one of my son’s dwarf hamsters, permanently asleep in his cage, nestled motionless beneath alfalfa seeds, paper curls and peanut shells.

“I don’t know, my Señor,” I said, looking down, my thoughts shifting to Rocky alone in his cardboard mausoleum.

As Rocky lay cold and empty, his cousin Cody was in the cage next to his, oblivious to Rocky’s departure from the world. Cody kept to his regular morning routine, which revolves around grooming and staying fit. He went to his regularly scheduled workout, rang all the little bells and ran to his walking bridge for sugar water breaks. He darted back and forth between the colorful obstacles that fenced him in as if nothing had changed. Only once did he push his nose through the bars to smell the freedom of our family room. The aroma of liberty was not enough to hold his attention, though, and he snapped right back into his happy-go-lucky lifestyle, running laps on his bright-green wheel as if the Olympics were on his to-do list.

“These are very good questions you’re asking, my Señor. I just wish I knew their answers.”

Rocky was bookish and thoughtful, preferring to spend time in the warmth of his cozy mini-igloo. He enjoyed peanuts and the quiet, caring little for all of the colorful toys my son had placed in his cage. I imagined him lying in the soft paper confetti looking up into his stargazer dome, reciting Shakespeare and Keats, while Cody ran himself blind on a neon circus wheel that went nowhere.

Smithsonian Magazine published an article last year about how hamsters are optimists and make positive decisions when their environment is cheery and upbeat, the same as humans. Rocky had the same interior designer that Cody had, and I wanted to believe that he was just as happy about his choices in his peaceful plastic cupola as Cody was riding a bedazzled wheel.

“Mama, I need to know! How many more minutes until our bodies stop working?” he was growing desperate.

I had rehearsed this moment in my mind many times, but my words fell flat. What came out was nothing like the mock conversations I’d had in my imagination.

“Honey, that’s not something you need to worry about, okay?”

We’d put Rocky in a shoe box with his favorite treat, a large peanut, placed between his tiny claws. Out of respect, I was hoping that Cody might hold a vigil once he realized that he and Rocky would not be driving their plastic cars together around the family room anymore. He didn’t. He was busy with a project in his maze. We sang and prayed for Rocky to find peace in the afterlife, and I followed my son’s lead as he said a few words at the service about how Rocky loved to race his plastic Ferrari and beat Cody across the finish line before they both slammed into the wall.

“Just tell me!” he pleaded.

Tears began to fill my eyes, and I could feel my nasal cavity clogging up. I am well now, with only hearing loss caused by the heavy-duty antibiotics I was given. But when I was hospitalized and diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and was told I could die, I replayed a scene from “Terms of Endearment” in my throbbing head over and over. Near death, Debra Winger’s character, Emma, prepares a brief, thoughtful goodbye speech for each of her sons who have come to see her one last time in the hospital. That film, combined with my imagination, made it all look and sound so poignant and stoic, but I knew I could never be that composed or brave — I would ruin a moment like that with unabashed crying and gooey mucus hanging from my nostrils while my son handed me tissue after tissue.

Lessons from my daughter on loving and losing a pet

“Okay, okay!” I relented, scaring myself a little, with no idea what I’d say next.

“Let me think. So there are 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 times 24 hours, times 365 days, times maybe 100 years … is … is …”

“80 hundred-billion minutes?” he shouted.

“Yes! That’s it, Señor! 80 hundred-billion minutes,” I said, kissing his cheeks and forehead, praying to all that is holy that he was done for the night.

“So that’s a long time, right, Mama?”

“Oh, my goodness, Señor! That’s an incredibly long time. That’s like forever,” I said, pulling myself together and sucking in the fresh air of relief. He finally had the answer he needed.

“And even when our bodies stop working, like Rocky’s did today, we live on inside each other’s hearts. That’s what love is all about, my Señor. I think Cody will go on loving Rocky by doing all the things Rocky’s body can’t do anymore.”

“Can he ride in Rocky’s red car?”

“Of course! I don’t think Rocky would mind at all.”

His eyes were finally closing. Then he opened them wide again, as if he had thought of another question involving math and the mystery of life, and I winced at what he was about to say before he fell asleep to his favorite lullaby.

“Can I have a peanut butter cup in my lunch tomorrow?”

I’d like to think Rocky heard him, too.

Candida Gazoli is a writer and mother who lives in Pennsylvania. Find her at

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