My daughter watched Little Women for the first time last month, and loved it, but it messed with her.
You see, Beth dies.
Little Women tells the story of the March family of Concord, Massachusetts, during and after the Civil War. The father is away at war, and the story focuses on the mother and four grown or nearly grown daughters. It is, more than anything else, a character study of these 5 remarkable women and the friends and suitors who enter and exit their lives. The 1994 film version we own does a wonderful job of drawing us into their lives and helping us, in the course of two hours, to grow attached to them.
And it’s really hard for a four year old to understand why one of these girls dies three quarters of the way through the movie. Beth gets scarlet fever, recovers and lives several more years, grows weak and finally passes peacefully with her sister Jo by her side. Yosi was transfixed by this entire process, peppering Lyndie and I with questions before, during and after the movie. Every single time she made us watch it.
“Daddy, can we watch Little Ladies Growing Up again? The one where Beth dies?”
My daughter has always been fascinated by death, whether in a sad song she adored, or in trying to grasp the death of Jesus as related to the death of our cats. During and after Little Women she asked a dozen different questions about Beth’s sickness and death, and we did our best to answer them. I don’t know how much she understands about death at this point, but what I love is that she’s asking these questions, and that she wants to revisit the material that first brought the questions out. She isn’t backing away from what challenges her, but moving toward it.
A few days ago Yosi and I sat together and watched countless videos of spiders and scorpions on the National Geographic website. She was fascinated, especially by one about a boy who got stung on the foot by a scorpion and one about a a species of wasp that will paralyze a tarantula and then lays eggs on the body so the newly hatched young can feed on the still living arachnid prisoner. That night, somewhat predictably, she had nightmares about scorpions. The next morning though, as soon as we got up, she begged me to watch the videos with her again. I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea since they had given her bad dreams, but she was insistent. So we watched them all again, and she didn’t have nightmares that night. What terrified her also fascinated her, and the latter compelled her to overcome the former.
The same dynamic is at work when any of us try to process death. Once again, my daughter teaches me. Too often when something challenges us we back away rather than pushing forward to learn and grow. We allow comfort and safety to trump truth and beauty.
When did you first process death as a child? How have you handled this issue with your own kids?