In the cinematic masterpiece also known as “Independence Day,” spoiler: the president’s wife dies. His young daughter–I’m gonna put her around six or eight because those are the two ages you guess when you have no idea but you know it’s a child–sits in the lobby of the hospital and asks Bill Pullman “is Mommy sleeping?” “Yes, Mommy is sleeping,” replies Bill.
Mommy ain’t sleeping. Mommy is dead.
What is this thing that we do where we can’t say just it? Mommy died. Your friend isn’t “taking a long trip,” she died. She took a long trip right into no longer being alive.
I get it. Death is hard, harder for those the dead leave behind than the dead themselves. It’s the one thing we all experience yet it’s the one thing that we refuse to acknowledge for what it is. And maybe that makes sense. Death is final and that level of commitment is hard for anyone to get on board with. But the line between comfort and real life must be made murkier than it is because we’re simply hindering our ability to come to terms with hard reality.
“My dad is dead,” I tell people.
“He’s in a better place,” people say.
Well I mean, sure, maybe, but who cares? He’s not here and that’s the relevant part for me and everyone who knew him. Why is saying the place he’s in now is better than the place he was? How does that feel for everyone living in the latter place?
Talking about death is important, not least because children need to understand what death is. We speak to children as though they’re mindless creatures who understand nothing beyond how to put milk in cheerios and say the Pledge of Allegiance. If they are it’s only because we make them that way by refusing to speak to them like actual humans.
We do it with more than death. When I was in sixth grade, our entire grade watched an educational movie meant to scare us away from pedophiles and strangers who might kidnap us. But the whole movie was so oddly euphemistic that it took us a long while to realize that’s what they were talking about. One girl in the film told her friend that her uncle was “playing special games” with her. Her friend responded “you should never play special games with anyone. Tell someone if someone asks you to play special games with them.”
Here I was, with my best friend, and we were both wondering “what on earth are special games and why can’t we play them?” We knew what sex was and we knew what pedophilia and incest were. But the film and our school administration refused to say the words “sex” and “pedophilia” out loud when talking to us. Which just really defeated the whole purpose.
More importantly, it reinforced the shameful aspect of sex, which in this context then reinforced the “you should be ashamed of being sexually assaulted” aspect of sexual assault. It made my friend and I feel as though we were bad people for thinking and saying these words that the movie and our teachers refused to say. If all the adults were being so shifty and nonspecific, it must have been for a reason, right?
Children can handle real words. Children can hear words like “sex,” death,” “dying,” “cancer,” and “terminal” without dissolving into puddles of cherry flavored innocence juice.
Then again, it’s often not really about the children. Adults often use these “kinder” means of talking about hard subjects with children because it’s really the adults that can’t deal. “Mommy is sleeping” is more about Bill’s desire to believe that she will wake up, Sleeping Beauty style. But shit man, way to give a six- to eight-year-old kid insomnia for the next decade of her life.
Tell her Mommy is dead. Hug her. Tell her you’re still there for her. Tell your friend whose sibling just died that you’re there for them, instead of offering empty condolences about the niceness of the place the sibling has gone. Doing so stunts the grieving person’s ability and right to grieve. If their loved one has gone to a better place, they’re assholes for wishing said loved one was still alive. Let them be sad by letting the dead be dead.