I’ve never felt the need to write one of these before but I can see why this might be a difficult blog post for some to read. Unsurprisingly, given the title, this contains discussions about death.
Well… That was not the lunchtime I’d expected…
Piglet has been really enjoying two of the great children’s novel series during lockdown. I’ve been reading Harry Potter to him while my wife has been reading The Chronicles of Narnia. He seems to love both and we are on books five and seven of the two seven-book-long series respectively. Granted, he’s a little bit young for either series and there are some topics that are maybe a little bit above his head but he has absorbed the concept of both worlds with unbelievable attention to detail and joy.
We read lots of books more suitable for his age as well but it’s hard when we’re spending so much time with him to keep reading the same short books over and over again. So as long as he’s enjoying them, we’re both very keen to keep reading books with a bit more substance. I’m constantly amazed by Piglet’s recall when it comes to remembering specific events or characters in the series and we manage to use the enthusiasm for the series to prompt lots of other learning. For example, one of the most entertaining distraction techniques we used on the hike with him the other weekend was to try and name characters from either series from each letter of the alphabet. It’s helped his first steps of spelling immensely!
He adores Dobby and the main trio of the Hogwarts adventures. But he also takes a very keen interest in the less innocent characters, repeatedly asking for clarification over what they’ve done and what their motives might have been. Perhaps a forewarning at the time but it was very interested in one of the surprise key characters in The Goblet of Fire as soon as they were subtly introduced.
I read Narnia as a (obviously much older) child too but remember less of it, it turns out, than I thought I did. The books are much shorter than the equivalents in the Harry Potter series but the content possibly more profound. I was aware, even as a kid, that the religious analogies are strong threads throughout the books; inadvertently introducing Piglet to the concept of heaven as ‘Aslan’s country’. It was this that he picked up on today, wanting to understand better what it had meant for King Caspian (a character first introduced as a child in earlier books) to have died of old age and ‘gone to Aslan’s country’.
We’re a fairly religiously agnostic family, although not so much through apathy as compromise. I was fairly enthusiastically atheist as a child; angry with the injustices of Christianity and the seemingly catch-22 unfairness of an unprovable heaven or hell. My wife, in contrast, was quite religious as a schoolgirl; a self-motivated religious student and involved in school chapel. (She thinks I’m over playing this, I guess it’s a statement of the difference between her school and mine that she doesn’t consider volunteering to help out at the school chapel as a statement of intent). However we have mellowed both of our views towards a more neutral ground as we’ve grown older (and more cynical?). I would still call myself agnostic but I understand and respect the desire of someone to want to relate to something bigger that can be neither proved nor disproved. It also shows how my views have changed that I don’t know for certain what my wife would say her religious stance is and I am content to accept the ambiguity that comes with this. That said, we both seemed perfectly happy with the joint decision not to christen Piglet and (to my surprise at the time) we had a very personal but distinctly civil ceremony when we married.
Anyway, that’s not really the point… What I was trying to get to was that, through Harry Potter, Piglet was introduced to the concept of death and then through Narnia the concept of an afterlife. His great-grandfather (my grandad) died fairly recently and although I made a point to talk to him about it, I could tell it never really sunk in. I was delighted to be have been able to introduce them to each other the year before, and so they had met but had very few shared memories. I could only assume at the time that he was really ready to process such a concept as death or where that person then goes.
As a result, we were slightly taken aback when Piglet innocently asked “Mummy, what does ‘gone to Aslan’s country’ mean?”. My wife and I glance at each other, quickly, and she explains that it’s a metaphor for dying. The next question takes us back a little bit more: “When I die, will you carry me to Aslan’s country?”. This is not by any means a simple question to unpack and I feel a tear welling in my eye and see the same in my wife’s. My wife laughs (a little unconvincingly) and explains that, actually, she hopes that Piglet will live much longer than us and so it will be him seeing us off. This in turn plants the concept of parental fallibility and mortality in my son’s ever widening eyes. Suddenly he’s processing the concepts of death, afterlife and surviving his parents: quite a two minutes in any lunchtime for a 4-year old!
By this point both my wife and I are fighting back the tears at the look materialising on our son’s face. I never thought I would so clearly see the moment my son’s innocence about his place in this world was wiped off his face. I felt instantly incredibly guilty and proud of him. You could see the cogs turning for a couple of seconds and then his face broke as he turned to his mum and said possibly the most grown up thing I think I’ve ever heard. I’m struggling to hold it together just writing this down, several hours later. He said: “I feel sad because you’re going to die”, starting to cry as he utters the last words in this sentence. Lots of cuddles ensued and we continued to answer questions while trying not to wallow in the tone of the conversation. All three of us were happy to move the conversation on quickly without denying anyone the chance to talk about it. The only point I felt I wanted to add to the conversation was to explain why I have such a strong stance against violence, specifically role-playing or pretending violence or weapons. It’s always been very hard to explain why it matters so much to me without linking it to death; so I was keen to make the connection here. Piglets only mention of the conversation later in the day was to reiterate my stance to me of ‘not liking violence’.
I was a profound moment in an otherwise cheerful and happy day. It will be interesting to see when the conversation next comes up; Piglet quite often refers back to pointed conversations 24-48 hours later, even if he doesn’t seem to have taken in much at the time. He’ll have registered the emotive impact of the conversation on us if nothing else.
I have conflicting thoughts over whether we’ve made a mistake in allowing this conversation to happen so soon. I’m generally not a huge fan of censorship and would rather allow an open and honest conversation at the time that things come up, but I appreciate that’s not always possible and we certainly could have done more to keep this topic further from his grasp. That said, the enjoyment and learning that he’s found in the two sets of books has been huge and I wouldn’t have wanted to deny him the chance to learn about this when he is so clearly keen to understand the complex (but profoundly human) relationships between the characters. For example, we have talked a lot today about the concept of jealousy and what that means and I think to do that through the power of metaphors in books is probably far more digestible than having to use his own personal, and more highly emotive, experiences to identify such things.
There have also been other benefits that I feel have come about through discussions about the books. I’m not sure whether it’s the books themselves, the way I’ve presented it or just human nature but he’s been very keen to label the characters as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. To be fair, in Narnia there is a much clearer distinction with some generally categorisable characters. However, in Harry Potter, such is so much of the analogous issues of school life and personal development it’s hard look at it so simply. I’ve enjoyed using examples of the characters behaviour and flaws to challenge Piglet’s preconception. He has also latched on to some of the fantasy elements and built them into his own moral code (it would seem, I’m just taking what he’s said literally). After learning about the ‘unforgivable curses’, he has decided that wants to live by the guidance of not controlling people (the Imperius curse), not torturing people (the Cruciatus curse) and not killing people (the Killing Curse: Avada Kedavra). I don’t think I can really argue with that!
I was slightly surprised by my reaction to Piglet asking about the afterlife. Or at least I didn’t really register what my reaction had been until my wife pointed it out a few hours later. I had told him that we didn’t know, but that it was ok to hope. That’s a much more positive spin than I would have expected to put on it in the heat of the moment. So often, I’m guilty of stating the facts (that we don’t know in this case) over encouraging the ambiguity for positivity (which is that hoping in itself can help). The 15-year old of myself would have been quite surprised to hear that reaction.
As much as it was a tough conversation to have and I never like to see my son cry; it was also a beautiful moment and I feel such an immense feeling of pride at watching him grow. It also brings home that you really don’t get to choose the pace at which you develop as a parent. I know I say it far too often, but he’s really not a baby any more!
Anyway, the times are changing now. It looks like Piglet will start back at nursery for at least a couple of days a week soon and that should return my working life to something resembling normality; or at least closer to it. I guess it brings to an end the incredibly intense 4-month period we’ve all spend together in this house during lockdown. It’s been wonderful at times but, I can’t deny, tough at others – but I’m very aware that I may not get to spend such a long period of time with him again in his life. I have loved watching him develop and I don’t think I’ll really understand how much he’s changed until I see him back in familiar environments outside of our bubble such as seeing grandparents, or seeing his interactions at nursery.
I apologise for putting such a morbid topic in your time lines but I hope that you can also see the positive or at least the beauty in how a child processes the world around them. Until next time…