It started with a sparrow, blessedly unbloody, but resolutely dead upon the path.
Newly dead, too: had it been there thirty minutes earlier, it would not have been missed by the 8.40 stampede of scooters and bikes and tripping feet. Here now, though; planted firmly, neatly and so centrally on the pavement that no swerve of the buggy, no “oh look, what’s up there?” would have worked as distraction. No self-respecting three year old would have fallen for that. Mine certainly didn’t.
“Mummy, what’s that. Is it dead?”
“Yes, love, it’s a sparrow and it’s dead.”
“Can we take it to the doctor to make it better?”
“No, love, you can’t make things better when they’re dead.”
“Is it in heaven, mummy?”
And we were off. Not all at once, though the short car journey up to preschool was studded with tricky questions. But later that day, that night in bed, the following morning, it was obviously still playing on his mind. He was determined, too, to get to the bottom of where he’d been before he was born. Till now, the simple “in mummy’s tummy”, or “you were a seed” have more or less done, but this time he wouldn’t stop. Had he been in heaven? Was I in heaven before I was born too? Did we play together? Who was older when we were there? Never have I wished so devoutly to be grilled on the minutiae of Star Wars instead.
It’s not the first time that he’s asked about death, of course. It’s not the first time that I’ve faced a three year old’s questions on the great unanswerable subjects that we all learn, through faith and superstition and a determined pushing-away, to manage rather than answer. The older two lost their great grandmother when they were two and four, and though they were sad, it was much easier to explain her loss in the cyclical nature of life that small children instinctively grasp. There is a difference now, though. The frailty of life, in all its terrifying unpredictability, has come too close to them, too soon. When a young person dies suddenly, that instinctive grasp is shaken, along with that deep need children have to be reassured of the fundamental rightness of things.
My children knew my cousin, but not well enough for them to grieve for him personally. For them, instead, there has been shock, the bewilderment and unavoidable knowledge of seeing the grown-ups closest to them knocked sideways with loss. There was no way for them to be sheltered from the magnitude of what had happened, no way of packaging it into rightness or into being any less monumental than it is. This was beyond all of our control, and they know it. They are left that little bit less certain that we can control things at all.
It is little things that show it. That almost imperceptible pause if accidents come into the conversation. That sharp glance when I mentioned that my cousin sounded like their beloved Uncle Andrew. Trying not to let them see the compunction with which we adults now check in with each other at the end of a journey; hoping they don’t realise what we mean when we hug and say “take care” at goodbyes. They need things to make sense, and they are learning, too soon, that sometimes things just don’t. And I am learning, as I feel the soft warm heft of a small hand in mine, troubled eyes asking me to make it all better, to tread lightly and resist the urge to lift them up and never let them go. I can’t resolve the before and the after. I can just help them to make the most of now.