28 January 2007

On explaining death to an innocent

Yesterday morning, I faced my biggest challenge so far: Explaining death to my two-year old cousin.

Little Yoanna's miniature shark Ook-ook died Friday evening after I had opened the aquarium to clean it. Ook-ook, who was resting under a plant, zipped to the top and took the opportunity to jump out of the aquarium. He then landed on the floor four feet away from the aquarium with an extremely loud thud.

Despite my anxious efforts to save Ook-ook by quickly putting him in a salad service bowl filled with water, he died in less than 10 minutes. Even with frantic Hail Mary after Hail Mary, he spasmed on the bottom of the bowl, then gently floated to the top.

Yoanna began to cry.


Now I’m firm believer that the first three years of a child’s life are the most crucial; they will be affected by those years in their adulthood. As they develop into toddlers, they must be loved, cherished and guided. Unpleasant encounters, such as parents arguing or scorning another person, should be avoided. Encounters such as these will teach your children to be temperamental and condescending.

Yet, I didn’t know what to do on this occasion. Should I frown and show sadness? No, that would traumatise Yoanna and make her afraid of death. Should I smile? No, that would be insensitive, and Yoanna might resent me. I fumbled for an appropriate action, and silently prayed.

“Dear God, help me here, I’m in a bit of a foozy.”

My first reaction, of course, was to pick her up into my arms and hug the little bundle. After letting her cry for a few minutes, I gave her a bottle of warm milk and prepared her for bed. I would put her to sleep and explain it all to her in the morning.

As I prepared to say Compline, I thought about what had occurred. What lesson could I teach her from this? I wasn’t sure where animals go when they die, so I couldn’t teach her about heaven.

I picked up my prayerbook and scanned through the pages.
In the midst of life we are in death;
from whom can we seek help?
From you alone, O Lord,
who by our sins are justly angered.

Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts;
shut not your ears to our prayers,
but spare us, O Lord.

O worthy and eternal Judge,
do not let the pains of death
turn us away from you at our last hour.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Saviour,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.

-Media Vita from “Burial of the Dead: Rite Two” (page 492), The Book of Common Prayer, 1979
Marion Hachett, in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book (page 485), writes about the Media Vita:
Notker, a monk of Saint Gall in Switzerland (d. 912), is said to have composed it while he was watching the construction of a bridge over a chasm and realized the peril that threatened its builders.” ¹
Ook-ook, as with all animals and humans, live in the constant presence of death. In a sense, and I don’t mean to sound depressing, we are all living corpses. In the ancient Sumerian text, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh cries out over the corpse of Enkidu, his friend: “Is there something more than death? Some other end to friendship?” For Christians, death is not the end of hope: “Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.” (Catechism of the Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer, page 862)
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Romans 8.35, 38-39 NIV)
That morning, I decided to teach Yoanna that death wasn’t to be feared. After Matins, we held a little wake for Ook-ook on the kitchen counter. As my Catholic grandmother did many years afore, we were going to have a little procession, complete with flower petals and a crucifix, to the garden to bury Yoanna’s shark; it was like when my grandmother and my siblings would bury my dead hamsters in yard as a young child. It somehow made me feel better, at that age, to know that you were doing something for that which you cared for.

Our ‘funeral’ was a strange, yet grand affair; Yoanna seemed to be quite inquisitive of what was going on. After lighting two candles, I recited the  Benedicite, omnia opera Domini (Canticle 12, The Book of Common Prayer, page 88), said the Lord’s Prayer, and ended with a prayer for joy in God’s creation (Prayer 1, The Book of Common Prayer, page 814). I even enlisted the use of Yoanna's favourite teddy bear to ease any grief.

We then processed to the garden; a little hole was dug up beforehand.

I placed Ook-ook in his grave, sprinkled a few flower petals, and read a kontakion:
“You only are immortal,
the creator and maker of all;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth,
and to earth shall we return.

For so did you ordain when you created us, saying,
‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
All of us go down to the dust;
yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

-adapted from “Burial of the Dead: Rite Two” (page 499), The Book of Common Prayer, 1979
Yoanna looked at me curiously. I said:

“This is a blankie for Ook-ook.”
“Yes, pumpkin. Let’s make him nice and warm.”

I then gave her a spoon to cover Ook-ook with soil. Yoanna doesn’t know about time yet, but she does know that “Good night” is said when it is time to sleep. So I said,

“There! He’s nice and warm! Good night, Ook-ook. Say good night, Yoanna.”
“Good night, Ook-ook.”

Yoanna smiled at me, and I whispered, “He’s only sleeping. Let’s go inside to let him rest.”


¹Hatchett, Marion. Commentary on the American Prayer Book. New York: Seabury Press, 1981.


PadreRob+ said...

very sweet.... she'll thank for that one day....

and you have St Francis' ear now I'm sure, should you need his intercessions :)

pax Fr Rob+

kristy said...

I stumbled on your blog because you linked to me, and someone got to my blog from yours. I just wanted to tell you that you have to be one of the most talented writers I've stumbled on in the "blogosphere". Keep writing!!

...And that was an amazing thing that you did for your cousin. If only all of us had a first experience of death like that!

Tay Moss said...

Wonderful! Good for you!