Friday, August 29, 2014

My daughter watched Frozen and now she won't stop talking about death

On our drive to camp last week, my three-year old interrupted the song "Do you want to build a snowman" with a startling pronouncement.

"Ima, if you and Abba die, I won't be sad. I'll take care of my baby sister."

Later that day, she shared with me her follow-up plan: If I die, she'll go to Cambridge to live with her aunt.

Today, she wasn’t quite so sanguine. After she asked me why Maimonides isn’t here right now, I couldn’t extricate myself from the conversation without using the d-word. Somehow we got from “He lived 800 years ago and no one lives that long” to her crying “I don’t want to die.”

If you’re keeping score, she also clarified that I should not predecease her, since she loves me very much. I’m not equipped to help her wrap her head around the idea that all people die eventually. A very long time from now is still far sooner than ‘never’, and she does not want to go live with God.

I don’t know whether to blame Frozen or myself.

As adults, we’ve been rocked by mortality this summer. My husband and I have not shared recent events with our daughter. She's three. We don't live in Israel. She doesn't know the army sent her cousins to fight in Gaza. She doesn’t know who the Yazidis are. She’s never heard of Robin Williams.

But oh, does she know Frozen. Our family's "limit the TV" policy has one massive loophole: sick kids can watch full length movies. When she was too sick to go to camp (or do much else of anything) earlier this summer, I let her watch Frozen three times in 26 hours. We got the soundtrack as a gift right around that time, and started listening to Frozen on the way to and from camp every day.

This isn't particularly onerous. I'm a huge fan of the movie, myself. I sing along without shame. But now I have to explain to a three-year-old why Anna's and Elsa's parents died when they were quite young. It's not too far a leap to connect to our own mortality.

My daughter had asked about death before Frozen, but sporadically. The book Magic School Bus Inside a Beehive upset her, because the new queen bee had to kill all her rivals. She asked if her great-grandmother was dead after we named our new baby after said great-grandmother. The concept of loss seemed to distress her - she was sad because "Oma needs her mommy" - but only briefly. Her short attention span is our friend in this regard. Next question - “Does Omama still need her house?”

Even today, when she asked (again!) if I was going to die when her sister was still a baby, she distracted herself with a long dissertation on how she would go to the store to buy her sister oatmeal, which was followed by how much she likes oatmeal, a digression into the three bears, and some questions about which animals eat porridge.

What’s a parent to do? I'm not going to lie to my kid. I'm not going to whitewash reality more than is necessary. Even if we don’t let her watch movies, we’ll still encounter illness in real life. My husband and I agreed long ago we could tell her that most people only die if they are very old or very sick. This backfired. The very day she watched Frozen, she said, “Abba, I'm sick. Am I going to die now?"

I want to reassure her about death. Though I know that we never know, I’d prefer to keep her from thinking that death lurks around every corner. Statistically, she’s been born in pretty much the safest era in recorded history. But of course, she’s too young for me to teach her statistics.

So she’s going to keep asking questions and I will keep answering them. Some will be about death. Some will be about Maimonides. Some will be about porridge.