My oldest daughter and I have participated in a parent education co-op preschool (similar to this one) for the past two years. Part of my education, as a parent student at this school, is grounded in the idea that parents need clear principles guiding their work as parents. Our teachers have been open to how parents obtain or define these principles and, regardless of creed, most of the parents included something along the lines of “be honest with my children”, which seems like a no-brainer to me.
Honesty certainly makes my list (in part because I value honesty in relationships and in part because I am a terrible liar); I strive to be honest about a host of issues which arise each day with my children even when it would be easier not to. And I actually feel very strongly about it.
Which brings me to my neighbor and her children. Our children spend quite a bit of time together. In the past we split time between our homes somewhat evenly, but after my dog died, she did not want to come to our house. I got the sense that she does not handle death very well, so out of respect, I demurred for a long while. But then my oldest child wanted to share some of her special toys with my friend’s son and started asking when he was going to come to HER house. Again. And again. And again. With the tenacity only a toddler can muster, she would not let it go, so I suggested we meet at our house for our next get-together.
When they arrived, my oldest was beside herself with joy. She had all her toys lined up and ready to “go”, but her friend passed them by as he looked for our dog. He asked, “Where’s the dog?” to which my daughter replied, “She was sick and she’s dead. She’s not in pain any more. I miss her too.”
My friend’s face fell. She hadn’t told him. Her son’s face crumpled in confusion. “What’s dead?” he queried.
My oldest started to explain, “Dead is when…” but my friend cut her off. “The dog’s not here right now, son, she’s away on vacation.”
My oldest looked at her, confused. She knows what a vacation is and I had, at one point, explained to her that dead did not mean vacation because she had told me, “Doggie’s gone, like a vacation” not long after our dog had died. So she knew that what my friend was saying was not right. And she screwed up her little face to argue her point.
At this point, I was at a loss. My friend and I had talked about the importance of being honest about death when my dog had died. She had told me that she was going to explain it all to him; she’d even borrowed one of our books to share with him. I had not imagined she would avoid telling him, though I can certainly understand the impulse to avoid the conversation. Nor had I imagined that I would be stuck between her and my daughter in this manner.
I did what any self-respecting mama would do: I asked my oldest to come into the kitchen with me to get a snack for everyone. When we got there, she did exactly what I knew she would do, she started telling me that “Doggie’s not on vacation. Doggie’s dead. Why did my mom’s friend say that?” So in the most honest and simple terms I could muster, I tried to explain to my child why some parents are not honest with their children about some things. We didn’t have a lot of time at that juncture, so I told her we could talk about it more that night.
My friend called me later that night. She did not apologize for misleading me about not telling her son about our dog. She did not apologize for lying in my daughter’s presence and saying our dog was on vacation. Instead, she told me she was mad at me that my oldest had told her son our dog was dead and she had spent the better part of the evening trying to calm him down and explain what it all meant.
My retorts were endless, but I squelched them. I value her friendship, even if we clearly did not see eye-to-eye on the issue of death, grieving, and young children. I did not, however, apologize to her for my daughter telling her son the truth. Instead, I asked her quietly, “Why didn’t you tell me you hadn’t been able to tell your son? Why did you let me believe you had told him, like you said you would? If you had told me, I could have helped. Not knowing threw me for a loop.”
The line grew quiet. I almost thought she had hung up on me. Then she said, “I did tell you that I would, didn’t I? I just can’t bring myself to do it. I just can’t”.
Our resulting conversation lasted the better part of an hour. Three days later, when my oldest daughter was on an outing with her grandparents, they came over again. This time, both she and I were there to help her son begin to understand why our dog isn’t here anymore.