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Dead Astronaut

Dead Astronaut

Here’s what happened: somehow Mini heard the word “dead” — it might have been “death” or “dying,” the specifics remain hazy — so he asks us, “What does ‘dead’ mean?”

Then one of us (I’m not going to point fingers) gives the kid a straight answer about what death is — you know, like a less graphic but equally informative version of the answer you might give to an unusually naive adult you happened upon, who was somehow unfamiliar with the concept of death despite being fully grown.

Mind you, we aren’t religious people, so there were no saccharine descriptions of heaven or eternal bliss or any of that bullshit to candy-coat this concept for the little guy. Instead he got “He’s just gone,” or “We don’t really know,” explanation for where our cat, Coast, went that one day that he left and then never came back.

Ever since then, I’ve watched Mini struggle with the concept of death, on and off, in increasingly heartbreaking ways. First there was the process where he’d periodically remember somebody he loved, and then ask, “Will Brianna die?” and we’d be faced with the choice of either lying to him, or saying, “Yes, but not for a long, long time. Don’t worry about it, buddy, because it won’t happen until you are very very old.”

Then there was this conversation we had:

“Mommy, do you remember Coast?”
“Yes, buddy, I do.”
“I miss him.”
“Me too, buddy.”
“Where did him go? Did him go in the road?”

But I think the thing that topped it off was picking Mini up from preschool and being greeted by him insisting that he get to play one round of “Dead Astronaut” with Harry (one of his favorite teachers) before we leave. Curious, I agreed, and found out that “Dead Astronaut” consists of Mini lying in the middle of the play yard, pretending to be: 1) an astronaut, who is 2) dead, and who is then 3) rescued by his crew, who 4) then pick him up and take him to a “hospital” where he is miraculously saved. This game was completely designed and articulated by Mini, with very specific directions on how things should be carried out.


I have to assume this is Mini’s version of a repetition compulsion, where he tries to gain mastery over something traumatic by repeating it (fictionally). Like, if he plays Dead Astronaut enough times, he will finally get to an ending where there is no such thing as death, and everybody goes on living forever and ever?

A few weeks ago we were dealing with Oedipus, and now the death drive? At this pace, we’re going to have worked through the remainder of the Standard Edition before he turns four.

Comments (4)

  1. Jan 26, 2011

    Our first dealings with Amy and death were when my grandmother died. I’d have much preferred talking about matter of fact death (chooks/ducks) than trying to explain death to her while we cleaned out my grandmothers house and dealt with things. It took about 12 months for her to seemingly assimilate it properly and stop talking about it quite so much.

    Of course, now she’s watched us kill and process animals, so I think it holds less mystery for her too. Isaac is 2 now, so we’ve probably got another 12 months before we do the death talks and obsession again.

  2. Jan 26, 2011

    I like your analysis of the dead astronaut game. There was a Twilight Zone episode, I think, in which the people didn’t ever die, and it was really creepy, because they weren’t happy about their condition at all. They felt trapped. I have tried, in talking with kids about death, to get across the concept of a natural cycle. But it’s hard.

  3. Jan 26, 2011

    We actually bought a book that helps explain death to children (because I am THAT plan-aheady and creepy). It has these little tadpoles (or whatever they’re called), and the tadpoles eventually disappear, and it turns out that they’ve turned into dragonflies. They can see the tadpoles in the water, but they can’t go down and talk to them, and the tadpoles can’t see them, because that’s how tadpoles work. Or something like that. I don’t know. It’s hard to find books that work for a heathen/Catholic couple.

    I cannot wait until Mini starts blogging. That little dude is deeeeep.

  4. Jan 27, 2011

    Yup, the death thing… so tough to explain. My daughter is almost 3 and we have our own version of the dead astronaut thing in which she talks INCESSENTLY about ways people can “get dead.”

    “MUMMA! We have to watch for the CAR so that we don’t get hit and GET DEAD. OR BRUISED.”

    (Sounds like Mini might be farther along in the process… I’m taking notes).

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