I was saddened to learn of the untimely passing of a neighbor’s son today. I’ll call him J. J was only 38 years old.
I didn’t know J very well. Until I read his obituary just now, I didn’t even know I’d been calling him by his nickname all this time. Our exchanges were mostly pleasantries, but he was a very nice guy and a good neighbor– the kind who kept to himself but still helped me clean off my car when he saw me struggling through the snow with two young children or who offered to carry grocery bags in for me when he saw my hands were full.
My son, in particular, took quite a liking to him.
One day, the fence we shared was being replaced, and J was helping to taking it down. My inquisitive son sat in our temporarily shared backyard and asked him at least a million questions, as little boys do, and he was very patient and sweet and answered all of my son’s inquiries with a kind smile while he continued to do his work.
After that day, Little M would ask about him often. He would see J’s mom in her backyard and ask where he was. In the morning when we left for school, he would always excitedly wave and yell hello as J passed by to start his truck for work.
As I mentioned, I didn’t know him very well. But they say children are the best judges of a person’s true character.
Today I’m not sure what to say the next time Little M asks for him. How do I explain that his buddy is gone and not ever coming back? Furthermore, how on earth will I keep him from asking our poor grieving neighbor where her son is every day when our paths cross?
It’s suddenly occurred to me that, for the very first time (as we’ve been quite fortunate so far) I might have to talk to my five-year-old son about death.
I considered just saying that J moved very far away and we won’t be seeing him again, and that his mommy is sad that he left so we can’t ask her about him anymore.
But what if he asks why he left, or where he went, or why he made his mommy sad? What do I say then?
I am not one of those people who has trouble lying to my child if it is necessary (and sometimes even when it isn’t). I can’t count how many times I’ve threatened a call in to Santa in December or claimed that our dinner was “just chicken” when it was really Nemo’s second cousin on everyone’s plate.
But it isn’t merely about lying this time. I just have this overwhelming urge to shield him from the pain and confusion that death brings upon us, to keep the floodgates locked away from the river of sorrow that a first encounter with death inevitably unleashes on all of us. I want to let him continue to live in his happy little bubble where death exists only in video games and PG-13 movies, and the people you care about only leave sometimes but always come back. There’s an innocence I don’t yet want to steal from him. It makes my heart bleed for the children who have had someone very close taken away too soon—leaving behind tiny little broken hearts that never fully heal.
As hard as it will be to break the news to my son, however I choose to do so, I just want to say I’m grateful to J for always being kind to him. For whatever the reason, his very presence unfailingly made my son’s face light up every day. He was a good guy, a nice man who always took a moment to say hello to my little boy. That’s all I could really ever ask for in a neighbor—all I can ask from anyone, really.
May he rest peacefully, and may his family heal someday from the wounds that his sudden absence has left behind.