July 10, 2013

Circles: What My Four-Year-Old Taught Me About Death. ~ Lynn Shattuck

Last winter when a friend got diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, his friends were asked to send mail.

I sat down with my son Max at the dining room table with a few blank sheets of paper and a pile of crayons.

“Do you want to make a drawing for our friend? He’s not feeling well,” I asked Max.

“Sure!” he said. He grabbed a crayon and made a few wide circles on the paper. “Circles help you feel better,” he said.


“I don’t want to die,” Max said to me yesterday as I buckled the straps on his car seat. He wore his camouflage costume from last Halloween, his face serious under the floppy green and brown hat.

“I know, Maxie. Nobody wants to die,” I said in a soft voice.

“I’m never, ever going to die,” he said.

I could think of nothing to say, so I kissed his nose and closed the door as gently as I could.


At our friend’s ceremony on Sunday, people told stories about him. I hadn’t known him very well, and I soaked in the stories. I heard of his generosity, how much he adored his wife, and his lifelong fascination with turtles.

After the stories, the few hundred of us, dressed in bright colors per his wife’s request, stood in a field of grass in a huge circle. We rubbed our hands together while thinking of our friend’s energy. The friction of our palms created heat, and we raised our hands towards the empty sky to send him on his way.


“I’m never ever going to die, right?” Max asked the other day. I was parking the car so we could go to the playground.

“Let’s just go have fun,” my husband Scott said. I looked at Scott. “He’s four years old. He doesn’t need to know that we all die,” he said. I nodded my head. We headed towards the brightly colored playground.


After my brother died when I was 24, I sat in rooms with other grieving people. I heard about their husbands, mothers and children who had died. We sat in circles and told each other’s stories. The details and relationships were different, but the emotions were the same. “I feel like I’m going crazy,” someone would say.

I stared at the candle in the middle of the room and I listened and nodded.

Sometimes I shared. I talked about how scared I was that more people I loved would die. I talked about how much I worried about my parents. How I couldn’t relate to my friends anymore because they were worrying about things young people worried about, like dating and college and cool shoes. Meanwhile I just sat on my parents’ porch in the dark. I blew smoke towards the stars and looked into all that air, hoping for a sign.


An early memory: I am four or five. I am standing in my backyard blowing bubbles. I lift my face up to watch them float, round and iridescent. The edges of the bubbles shimmer pink and blue as they rise and pop. And there is something about the colors and the empty sky that makes me think of my mom’s friend Gail who died. Something about all that shimmer and sky. And I thought that Gail was there somehow in those bubbles, in the slippery colors, lifting and disappearing. I was grateful for the crunch of the small pebbles beneath my feet to steady me.


“Is he dead now?” Max asked the other night when I came home from the ceremony for our friend. We laid in Max’s bed, the jewel-toned glow of Christmas lights on his wall illuminating his skin.

“Yes, he is,” I said.

“So, he’s down?” he said.

I paused. “I guess so, Maxie.”

“So, his bones are out?”

Another pause. “Well, when people die, they don’t need their bones anymore.”

“Oh,” he said. He smiled at me. “Mama, can you please tell me about when me and Daddy and Papa went to the Red Claws game?”

“Sure,” I said.

I huddled close and told him what I knew.


Maxie, I believe in telling the truth about death. I know that with these big questions, I am supposed to let you take the lead.

I am supposed to give simple answers, and not tell more than you ask for. But when you say, “I’m never, ever going to die, right?” I am stumped. I know all too well that there are no guarantees, that parents lose their children without notice, that the universe doesn’t play fair.

I could say, “I think you are going to live for a very, very long time.”

I won’t tell you that even the thought of you and Violet dying as very, very old people with gnarled limbs and misty eyes and terrible, loose skin makes me hold my breath.

That every night, I ask that you two outlive Daddy and I. I ask for you to be safe and healthy and happy, and I picture you both encircled in warm, protective light.

That whenever I spot a penny on a sidewalk, I pick it up and think of my brother. I smile and put the cool, round coin in my pocket. I always find pennies at just the right time.

That someone at the ceremony for our friend talked about telling her children about death and what happens. She said that she believes when we die, we burst off and merge with the hearts and minds of the people who love us. Whatever else happens, I know that much is true. When I heard that, it reminded me of those bubbles popping, and how somehow, those glittering colors and light must go somewhere.

But Maxie, maybe you already know all of this.

After all, you told me, “Circles help you feel better.”

You were right.


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Assistant Ed: Renee Picard/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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