TW: This essay discusses suicide.
By Meg Weber
My daughter was six years old the first time she asked me for details about Melissa’s death. She knew Melissa had been my best friend, that she had died, and that I missed her. I had staunchly avoided any other details.
One morning, just over a year ago, Kai finally voiced her questions. “Why did she die? Did she get sick? Did she want her bones to be a skeleton?” Although we’d talked about scattering Melissa’s ashes, I had purposefully skipped over describing how bodies become ashes.
I hadn’t explained how Melissa died, mainly because walking in the forest on a clear blue sky day is something I want Kai to be excited about, not scared of. I want her to love trees, not fear them. But the day she finally asked her litany of questions, I told her the truth. Melissa had been hiking in a forest and a big part of a tree broke off and fell on her. “Momo, did her blood come out? Momo, why didn’t she just run really fast to get away from the tree? That’s what I would have done.”
Trying to breathe through the sweet, literal innocence of her question, I answered, “What a smart idea, Little Bear.” I explained that the tree looked like it was falling one way, and then changed direction, so Melissa didn’t have time to run away.
Kai had more questions about why the tree fell. “Does this happen a lot? Was it the first time it ever happened?”
I offered the most honest, reassuring answers I could. “No, it doesn’t happen all that often. But no, it wasn’t the first time it ever happened.”
Over the next year, Kai often returned to the topic of Melissa’s death, asking for more details, repeating back to me what I’d told her so far, checking her facts. Sometimes I could predict when the conversation would head this way, other times it seemed to come out of nowhere.
Two months ago we were at the apex of a big transition – Kai changed schools mid-year, from the public school she had attended since Pre-K, to a Montessori charter school for the rest of 1st grade. Transitions are usually challenging for Kai, so I was prepared for a rough afternoon when I picked her up from her last day at the old school. But it was surprisingly smooth. We played on the playground. We went out to dinner at her favorite taqueria.
Driving home from dinner that night, Kai asked to hear The Cantaloupe Song, a charmingly annoying song Melissa sang. Kai loves it. I offered to call it up on my phone to play it for her. As I searched for the song, Kai asked me again about Melissa’s death. Some questions were familiar. “Why didn’t she just run fast, Momo, to get away from the tree?” I told her that the part of the tree that fell came down really fast. This led to a demonstration of gravity by showing her how fast a napkin fell when I dropped it into the passenger seat, and how fast my wallet fell when I dropped it from the same height. Momo as scientist!
“How fast would a big piece of tree fall?” I asked her.
“Super super fast!”
“Yes,” I said, “that’s why she couldn’t just run from it.”
“How did you find out that she died? Who told you?”
“Is he still alive?”
“Yes, he’s still alive.”
“Is he a grandpa?”
“No, he’s a dad, not a grandpa.”
“Was it just the two of them hiking?”
“No, there were two other friends with them too.” Wow, she has some stamina with her questions today. “Did they get hurt by the tree?”
“No, just Melissa.”
“Because she walked on ahead of them so she was the only one in danger.”
“Momo, did her arm get broken?”
“No, love, I don’t think her arm got broken. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I know her body stopped working when the tree fell on her.”
“Is there a video, Momo? Did somebody take a video of the tree falling?” What the hell kind of digital age question is that? “No, no one took a video of it.”
“What about Mount St. Helen’s erupting? Is there a video of that?”
“Yes, I think there is a video of that.”
I took that opportunity to play the Cantaloupe Song, relieved to be done answering questions. I’d had enough of talking about my dead best friend. We sang along together, both of us laughing. The last few bars played as we parked in the driveway. We got through the bedtime routine without a hitch.
Five days later I was dreading another challenging conversation with Kai. We had already waited through two full days before telling Kai about my sister’s sudden death. We just had to do it.
It was a Sunday morning and Kai was already next door at Aimee’s. Usually Sunday mornings she is with me, but everything was off-balance that week. I took a deep breath and let myself into Aimee’s side of our duplex, reminding myself of my goal – everything I told her would be true, but I wouldn’t tell her the whole truth.
“Oh good, Momo’s here!” Aimee managed to sound bright but not saccharine. She took a seat on the purple, overstuffed couch in her living room. Kai knew something was up. Aimee had told her we were going to have a little meeting. As I sat on the other end of the couch from Aimee, my ex-partner and co-parent of our seven-year-old daughter, Kai’s energy turned to static.
“I don’t want to have a meeting. I’m not going to talk to anybody.” She folded her arms across her chest and faced away from us.
Another deep breath. In. Out. I can do this. I’m a therapist, I engage in difficult conversations for a living. “Well, Mama and I have something to tell you, so it’s OK if you don’t want to talk, but we need you to listen.” I patted the empty cushion on the couch, inviting her to join us. I could imagine curiosity competing with anxiety inside her. She scrambled up beside us, folding her long legs into the little bit of available space. “What is it?”
Aimee took the lead. “Well, we have some sad news for you.”
Kai looked back and forth between us, searching our faces for clues, in the moment it took me to find my words. “Your Aunt Mary died.” There, I said it.
Her surprised face was exaggerated by a high pitched, “Huh?!!” sound, a trick she’d recently picked up from her best friend.
“Yeah, you look surprised,” I reflected. “It is surprising, isn’t it?”
Kai’s energy shifted again, this time into a familiar frenetic expression. Her words moved faster, spoken through the fake smile she willed onto her face. The questions poured out of her.
“When did she die?”
“Earlier this week.”
“Did she die at the hospital, at her house or in her bed?”
Surprised by the specificity of her inquiries, I answered, “She died at her house.”
“Well, was she in her bedroom or her living room?”
Damn. Keep breathing, Momo. “She was in her living room.”
In one breath came two questions, “How did she die…is there going to be a funeral?” She was familiar with funerals from two years earlier when my dear friend’s husband was killed in Afghanistan and I had traveled to be at her side for his funeral.
How she died was the one question I wasn’t willing to answer. And since the funeral question came on top of the how question, I chose to focus there instead. “Yes, baby, there will be a funeral.”
Kai’s face lit up, her arms made fists that she brought close to her chest like she’d just scored the winning goal in a soccer game. “Yes! My first funeral!”
It’s a good thing I know my kid as well as I do, or that might have undone me. I’m used to the quirky ways she processes difficult information, so this didn’t surprise me all that much. Plus the absurdity of it broke the tension.
Kai kept a close eye on each of her mamas throughout this conversation. She reached out for Aimee’s hand at one point, stroking it gently and saying, “It’s OK, Mama.” Grasping my hand, she said, “It will be OK, Momo, don’t feel sad. I’ll help you feel better.”
Her sweetness nearly broke my heart all over again. “I do feel sad, though. And it’s OK to be sad.”
“I don’t!” She trilled, defiant.
“That’s OK, too,” I assured her. “We’ll each feel all sorts of things at different times. That’s how this works.”
I could sense her starting to switch gears and was pretty certain I knew what was coming next. The only other death story Kai knew in any detail was Melissa’s, and I fully expected her to merge the narratives.
After sitting quietly for a moment, Kai started in with, “Momo, what was the name of the park where there was the skeleton and you carried it?” Again, knowing my daughter came in really handy here. I was able to piece together what she meant when it sounded like gibberish to anyone else. Even Aimee, still there on the couch with us, wasn’t following.
“Do you mean the name of the park where the tree fell,” I asked, “or the name of the park where we scattered Melissa’s ashes?”
“No, no, no, Momo! I mean where there was the skeleton you carried and was it heavy?!”
“Baby, I didn’t carry Melissa’s skeleton. I carried her ashes to the top of the waterfall and let them go. But I didn’t carry her body out of the forest.” I was eerily calm as I clarified these details. All those practice conversations about Melissa’s death were proving fruitful.
“Well who did,” she pressed on. “Who carried her body out of the forest?”
Filling my lungs with air again, slowly, I replied. “There were people to do that, love. The people who drove the ambulance carried Melissa’s body from the forest.”
All of a sudden we changed trains again. She had more questions about Mary. “Is her cat still alive?”
“Yes, love, Max the cat is still alive. I’m going to find him a new home.” Inspiration, spiked with hope, erupted from her. “We could take him! Yes, Momo! Can we be his new home?”
“Oh, wouldn’t that be great?” I lied. There wasn’t a bone in my body that wanted my sister’s cat. “But we can’t have animals in the duplex. So I’ll find him a good home.”
As her disappointment registered, it all became too much. She jumped up from the couch, turned towards us both and said, “I know, Momo…let’s play baseball! Because there’s three of us here, so we’ll have a batter and a pitcher and a catcher! That will help you feel better, Momo!”
Aimee and I just looked at each other, stunned, but also triumphant. After years of occupational therapy to manage her emotional regulation and sensory challenges, Kai had obviously taken to heart the idea that the best way to shift emotion in your body is through movement.
The conversation was clearly over, so we all stepped into our shoes and went outside on the front lawn to play baseball. We took turns batting, pitching, and catching for as long as I could manage, which was only about ten minutes before I needed to retreat into my house, emotionally spent.
Later that day, when the two of them were alone together, Kai circled back around to ask Aimee why Mary had died. We had planned that whether Kai asked why or how, we were only prepared to answer why. We weren’t ready to introduce the concept of suicide. Aimee gently gave Kai the answer we had composed together, explaining that Mary’s brain was sick and that she had a sadness that was bigger than the ocean and she couldn’t get better from it. “That’s different than the sad that you or I feel sometimes, sad the size of rain drops or a puddle. That kind of sad gets better and we feel other things like happy too.” Kai nodded as Aimee talked, and asked the same question in different ways a few more times. Then she let it be, stopping short of asking how her aunt died.
Over the next few weeks, I didn’t detect many outward signs that Kai was processing her aunt’s death. Then one day she went outside several times to pick flowers from a bush in the front yard. With her first handful clutched inside her fist, she came into the living room and asked me where a framed picture of Aunt Mary was so that she could place her wall of flowers in front of it. All my photos of Mary were still at my other sister’s house since the funeral, so I dug out a copy of the memorial program and set that on the bookshelf in our entryway. This was sufficient for Kai, who proceeded to make several more pilgrimages to the bush outside for additional blossoms.
That night, as I braided her hair in big loose plaits so it didn’t bother her while falling asleep, and didn’t tangle beyond repair overnight, she said, “I wish Mary was a zombie.” When I asked her to clarify, she said, “Yes, a zombie, so she could come back and paint my fingernails.” The zombie reference threw me, but it was touching that Kai had a vivid memory of something she and Mary had done together.
This experience of grief is vastly different from when Melissa died. Being the daughter of parents who are grieving, and the sister of siblings who are devastated by the same loss affecting me, adds layers of intensity. I never expected that processing the loss of my sister would include zombies or baseball. Then again, I’ve never been in active grief while parenting a creative, unusual seven year old.
Meg Weber writes about edges, about experiences and identities that hover at the perimeter. Her memoir writing gives voice to the ways her life continues to unfold outside the boundaries prescribed for her as the youngest of eight children in a Catholic family. She writes about transgression, about creating her own home in community, and about finding her way back into connection with family through tragedy. Grief is a central teacher in her life. Grief’s lessons appear through her writing when she is brave enough to show up and attend to them. Her work has been published in The Quotable, the Manifest-Station, and she is working on several book length memoir projects.