Sunday, February 2, 2014

Life of Bitzi

Over this past Shabbat, I would remember my uncle and get sad, once or twice bursting into tears.  Raphaela at first found the phenomenon confusing or funny, and so I explained to her that people cry when they are happy or sad, and that it is perfectly OK to express emotion that way.  I explained to her that I am very sad that my uncle is "very sick," and that's why I am crying.

Raphaela listened, and then sat on the kitchen floor for ten minutes, trying to evoke the emotion of grief and making similar crying sounds that I had made, but it was play acting.  When I asked her why she was crying, she replied logically, "Because Uncle Bitzi is very sick."

When that experience didn't quite satisfy her need to empathize with me, she instead threw me a big birthday party, using all the toys in the house, "so that you will be happy, Mommy."

Which brought me to the larger questions of life and death, mainly, how do you explain death to a four and a half year old?  Especially living in Israel,  where the daily news consists of reports about terror and fatalities, I assume that at some point Raphaela will get the idea, and it will become part of her understood lexicon.  As her mother, I feel a need (perhaps misplaced) to protect her from the fear and the ugliness of facing death.

Not that I personally believe that death is ugly:  when Ronald Reagan was President, a television movie called "The Day After" aired, and we sat as a family to watch it together.  It was the first time that any program had specifically dealt with the Russian-American hostilities, and it showed in graphic detail the gruesome deaths of humans across the globe, pre and post-nuclear winter.  I could not fall asleep that night, seeing in my head myself and everyone I loved dying because someone on the planet pushed the red button.  The television show burned itself into my brain.

My father sat with me and explained:  "The path of your life has already been determined by G-d. You could die from choking on a hot dog, you could drown in the bath tub, or you could get fried by nuclear war.  The trick is to live every life to its fullest, make every day count, because you never really know if it will be your last."

That message has accompanied me and given me comfort all my life, and when I was almost killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2001, and survived, it only renewed my sense of purpose, I embraced my second chance at life.  Since I also believe in reincarnation, I know that death represents the end on this physical plane, but there is so much more, and that comforts me as well.

Raphaela on the other hand, has no real understanding of the finality of death.  When she saw a cat flattened (and clearly dead) on the road, she said to me, "Mommy, that cat is very broken. You are a doctor, you can fix it."  So telling her that her uncle is dead, that she will never see him again, it didn't seem to penetrate.

Unless I can get a useful solution from someone like Mister Rogers or Dr. Phil, I will continue to shield Raphaela from the absolute grief and sadness.  I know in my heart that her first real encounter with death will probably be vis a vis our cat Harry, who is going on 12 years now.  Israeli cats who go outside expose themselves to danger and do not live to be 18 or 20, and at some point her best friend in the house and feline companion will leave this Earthly plane, and then we will deal with it together.

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