July 15, 2009

It was a mother duck and her three baby ducks, and I was pretty sure that we were going to kill them.

It wasn’t so much the impending massacre that made me scream. Nor was it the fact that the baby ducks – tiny mottled bundles of matted fluff – were so adorable. I’ve seen dead animals before. I’ve seen dead baby animals before. Hell, I’m pretty sure that I’ve eaten dead baby animals. No, it was the fact that it was a mother and her babies – that we were about to kill a mother! and her babies! – that made me scream. At the top of my lungs. With my arms flung over my head and my eyes squeezed shut.

Katie screamed too, of course. The fact that there was a giant truck bearing down on our vehicle from the right – thereby preventing Katie from swerving to avoid the Duckersons – made things worse. It was us and our children, or Mrs. Duckerson and her children. Katie chose us. Which, in retrospect, seems like the right decision. Survival of the fittest-who-are-driving-a-big-assed-SUV and all.

But it was a mother and her babies out on some misbegotten adventure, and as mothers out on their own misbegotten adventure with their own babies, the symbolism of what seemed to be their horrible end was just a little much for us to bear. And so we screamed. And kept screaming even after it became clear that somehow, miraculously, they had gone right under the vehicle and out the back end without ever even having a feather ruffled by the tires. Because, seriously, as portents go, that one was kind of confusing. Did the near-massacre mean that our moms-and-kids road-trip was doomed? Or did the averted disaster mean that we’d be fine? Were we going to get literally or figuratively shmooshed on this trip, or would angels divert the giant spinning tires of fate away from our feathers?

We didn’t know, so we just kept screaming.


The girls, of course, wanted to know why we were screaming, and our reflections on fate and God and death were a bit complicated to explain, so we narrowed it down to death, which is simpler. In theory.

There were ducks on the road, I said. And we almost killed them.

We almost killed them? And they would be dead? My daughter, always with the logic.

– That’s right.

Like the dinosaurs? And my great-grandpa?

– Something like that.

But why were we going to kill them?

– We weren’t trying to kill them. It was just going to happen.

But why was it just going to happen?

– Because sometimes those things just happen.

Like rocks falling out of space and killing the dinosaurs?

– Yep.

And my great-grandpa?

– Your great-grandpa wasn’t a dinosaur. Not exactly.

But did something kill him?

– Yes. No. Sort of. He just died.

But why? Are we going to just die? When? WHY?

At this point, one wonders what’s really so bad about saying that God decides everything for us and for the ducks and for the dinosaurs and we don’t really know why and so could you just stop asking already? Except that such answer would itself, inevitably, provoke a but why? and there are just so many but whys that a person can take before their head explodes. Anyone who doubts that there is such a thing as death by questioning has never taken a road trip with a three year old.


The trip didn’t kill us. Whether that was because of our superlative road-tripping skills, or because God is amused enough by us to keep us around, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I’m not all that interested in interrogating the why of our success, other than to reflect upon the utility of jellybean bribery, Der Kommissar singalongs and the occasional in-vehicle DVD in keeping small children happy during long drives.

But it was a success, not least because it affirmed for me – at a time when I needed such affirmation, badly – that regardless of whether the road is less traveled or more traveled, it is best traveled with friends and with family and with the spirit of curiosity and adventure. And that it is, always, well worth leading your ducklings out into the world, even if it does hold speeding vehicles and spinning tires and – if my daughter is to be believed – the ever-present threat of dinosaur-and-grandpa-killing asteroids falling out of the sky.

On The Road

Just put one foot in front of the other, and go.

PS: If anybody out there has any advice on how to explain death to small children – or even just how to explain the difference between roadkill, extinction events and the deaths of grandparents – I would be much obliged. She is not letting this one go.

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    Crystal July 15, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    I almost stopped reading because I thought for sure that the ducks were toast. Poor ducks. And then I would have been mad at you for running over a mother and her baby ducks and sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

    Thankfully, though, I kept on reading. I do not hate you. Divine intervention, or something. All is well.
    .-= Crystal´s last blog ..Potty Time =-.

    Her Bad Mother July 15, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    It wouldn’t have been me who ran them over. It would have been Katie. Ask the gopher, the one who wasn’t as lucky as the ducks.

    Her Bad Mother July 15, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    I didn’t mention about the gopher, did I? Let’s just say that he’s with the dinosaurs, and grandpa.

    Luann July 15, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I need help too. My 4 year old son has never experienced a death, but asks when he and everyone he meets are going to die. He asked if when people die you throw them in the garbage and I made the mistake of telling him no, we bury them in the ground and now he thinks he’s going to get dirt in his eyes and is completely freaked out and scarred for life so don’t do that.

    Also glad the ducks are ok. And hoping they made it to the other side unscathed.

    habanerogal July 15, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    That was one of the icing on the cake moments of the trip for sure ! Death is never an easy subject especially with super smart little people, but when my dad passed my then 6y.o. said that now our cat would know someone in heaven. Was too sweet.
    .-= habanerogal´s last blog ..Beaver-time in Utah =-.

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting July 15, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I wrote a while ago about pet death and people that leave without saying goodbye with some of our experience and some links. Not sure if there is anything there that will help, but I’ll pass it along just in case.
    .-= Annie @ PhD in Parenting´s last blog ..Second guest post on Canadian Family =-.

    Her Bad Mother July 15, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Thanks for that, Annie :)

    Redneck Mommy July 15, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    But was it a meteor or an asteroid that fell out of the sky?

    That question haunts me still.

    Not enough to google it tho.

    Duck killer wannabe.
    .-= Redneck Mommy´s last blog ..Facelift =-.

    Her Bad Mother July 15, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    KATIE would have been the duck killer. Sheesh, people. I was just the one doing the screaming.

    bad mummy July 15, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    When all else fails, call Parentbooks and ask for a book recommendation.
    .-= bad mummy´s last blog ..Grace in Small Things =-.

    Her Bad Mother July 15, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I don’t know Parentbooks – is there a website?

    domestic extraordinaire July 15, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    I am glad to hear that the Duckersons made it across the road safe and sound. As for the questions on death, I don’t really know. We have had a lot of death around us here, since the kids were little,but they never really questioned it.
    .-= domestic extraordinaire´s last blog ..Tragedy instead of Vloggling =-.

    Marinka July 15, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Better luck getting the ducks next time!
    .-= Marinka´s last blog ..Temporary Life Change =-.

    MommyNamedApril July 15, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    No idea about the death thing… we’re not much for god around these parts, so i understand your dilemma. looks like you had a great time, unanswered questions, aside :-)
    .-= MommyNamedApril´s last blog ..My Sleeping Angel. =-.

    Amber July 15, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    My 4-year-old will not stop asking about death. When I will die, when she will die, when her baby brother will die. This seems to weigh heavy on her.

    I just don’t think there’s any good way to explain it. Because I’ve got almost 30 years on my kid and I don’t really understand it myself.

    Anyways, I am right there with you, dealing with many ‘whys’ and not really being able to answer them.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Announcing the Carnival of Maternity Leave =-.

    Della July 15, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    I got nothin on the whole explaining death thing, but I thought you might enjoy this video on the question “Why” (physicist genius and fun guy Richard Feynman):

    (it’s the second one on the page) (I personally enjoyed the mirror one, too, but i’m really TRYING to stay on topic. :P mostly.)
    .-= Della´s last blog ..Not Me! Monday – Early Edition =-.

    McCashew July 15, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Wow!!! What an experience and lucky you, the questions just don’t stop do they…

    These were my professional go tos for explaining death to children when I was with hospice:

    When Dinosaurs Die (which might be a good one considering your conversation!)

    Freddie the Leaf (analogy of death and the seasons of life through the lifetime of a leaf)

    The Tenth Good Thing About Barney

    Badger’s Parting Gifts

    I’ll Always Love You

    I hope this helps! All of these are available online and most can be found at local libraries.
    .-= McCashew´s last blog did it!! =-.

    Trillian July 15, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    I usually refer to this for explaining death:
    It is secular in nature but I think has some good ideas for approach for anyone.
    We’ve had to address this with regard to dinosaurs and, most recently, Scooter’s fish. Fish, as it turns out, are really expert at dying with alarming frequency.

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting July 15, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    I love Parenting Beyond Belief. Great stuff.
    .-= Annie @ PhD in Parenting´s last blog ..Second guest post on Canadian Family =-.

    Her Bad Mother July 15, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Kristen of Motherhood Uncensored recommended that book, too. I need to check it out.

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting July 16, 2009 at 11:23 am

    There are actually two books and both cover similar issues, but in a very different way. Depending on what writing style you like and how you learn, you may prefer one or the other.

    Parenting Beyond Belief is a series of essays written by different people, some famous and some not, about raising children without religion.

    Raising Freethinkers is the companion book that is more practical advice on dealing with specific issues when raising children in a secular home.
    .-= Annie @ PhD in Parenting´s last blog ..Second guest post on Canadian Family =-.

    Trillian July 16, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    We have both books and have taken a seminar with Dale. He is a very interesting person and great at helping you figure out approaches to answering these kinds of questions in age appropriate ways. You can e-mail him at his site or go on the forums and ask folks there (or just search for “death”, it’s a frequent topic).

    katie July 15, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    I can honestly say I haven’t let out such a genuine scream in a long time. And we just kept screaming. BTW this is why I kept the gopher from you.
    .-= katie´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday: Fulfilling a Dream Edition =-.

    Her Bad Mother July 15, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    You kept the gopher from me because you’re a wuss and you knew that I’d cry.

    Also, Catholic guilt.

    katie July 15, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    Oh and I’m glad in retrospect you finally agree with the decision I made between the Duckersons and us.
    .-= katie´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday: Fulfilling a Dream Edition =-.

    Haley-O July 15, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    I actually remember the day I realized death. I must have been about 4! I remember thinking that my great grandma was going to die, and my DOG — she was 8 already, which means she’d soon be 9 and then 10 and then 11 and then, OMG, I CAN’T TAKE IT! I remember running to my parents room with my little “marcus mouse” with the bell on it crying that everyone was going to die one day….

    All we need to do, I think, is deal with the fear. Death is what it is — as you explained so well to the girls. that’s all you can do! When the fear comes, then you deal with the emotions. SO HARD.

    I’m SO relieved no ducks were harmed in the making of the roadtrip! Phew! that would have been so SAAAAD!
    .-= Haley-O´s last blog ..Cheaty’s Dancing Cousin MILES FABER (SYTYCD!) & NEW HAIRCUT =-.

    Motherhood Uncensored July 15, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    I’d just tell her in some parts of Canada, like say Redneck Mommy’s neck o’ the woods, they eat roadkill.

    So if people didn’t hit animals, Auntie Tanis and her young uns would have no food.
    .-= Motherhood Uncensored´s last blog ..The rudeness of strangers =-.

    Motherhood Uncensored July 15, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Or Asians.

    No dead ducks. We Chinese have nothing but noodles and rice.

    And dumplings.
    .-= Motherhood Uncensored´s last blog ..The rudeness of strangers =-.

    Her Bad Mother July 15, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Wait. Rednecks eat Asians?

    red pen mama July 15, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    hmm. We haven’t faced the questioning of death yet. But, then again, the girls “lost” their older brother, and we visit his grave every year. We just tell them he’s in heaven with Jesus (we’re Catholic) and leave it at that. It seems to make Monkey sad; Bun is still oblivious. I’m sure the questions are coming.

    And I’m really glad the ducks are okay. Although you paint a very funny picture with your words.

    .-= red pen mama´s last blog ..Monday’s Adventure =-.

    Amy Jo July 15, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    This is the worst. My son’s pet fish died recently and I panicked. I totally copped out and said he jumped down the drain like Nemo, because I am a sucky parent. I just wasn’t expecting it so soon. He’s only three as well. Good luck with that, and please feel free to share so I don’t resort to disney analogies next time!
    .-= Amy Jo´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday: Blowing Bubbles =-.

    Rebecca @ Playground Confidential July 15, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    I guess this is one reason why I still can’t fully let go of the idea of some sort of god. I can’t even bring myself to come to terms with the idea of nothingness after death, an end of the self. Not even after years and years and thousands of dollars spent wrestling with just that in university philosophy courses. So how could a child?
    In any case, I think that the most honest and straightforward (albeit age appropriate) answers are always the best.
    .-= Rebecca @ Playground Confidential´s last blog ..Breaking the Family Budget =-.

    Her Bad Mother July 16, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Yeah, me too. But when you have a small person demanding WHY, God-in-the-abstract becomes a little difficult to explain. The little person isn’t satisfied with ‘maybe’ or ‘I think’ – they want to know his name and number and where he lives and how many cats he has and whether he likes gum and what he has against dinosaurs.
    .-= Her Bad Mother´s last blog ..Roadkill =-.

    Mommy Writes July 16, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Dunno if it helps, cause we do bring our faith into the discussion, but here’s what we tell our kids:

    Your body is the part that everybody can see, the part that moves and jumps and eats and all that stuff. But your soul (or some people call it your spirit) is what makes you You. It’s what makes you different from everybody else. Sometimes, usually when people are very old or very sick, the body just stops working. And then the soul (or spirit) leaves the body and goes to be with God in heaven. Nobody knows where that is, but we believe it’s a beautiful place where our souls get to be with God and Jesus and nobody hurts anymore. And then the body — which doesn’t work anymore — is still here on earth and the people who loved that person usually bury it. But we only bury bodies when the soul is gone.

    My kids (9, 7 and 4) do pretty well with this. It also helps that they have a 102 year old great grandma who is in very poor shape, so I can kind of use her as an example of somebody who is very very old and whose body doesn’t work very well and one day, her body will stop working and her soul will go be with God.

    Sheri Bheri July 16, 2009 at 11:43 am

    We were ‘lucky’ that we had a cat death to explain, before we had a loved-one death to explain. Such that when my Dad died in February, 4 y/o DD said “Oh Mama, Grandpa must be SO HAPPY because he’s in Heaven with Buddy!”

    We say that we believe that every one has a spirit and that when our bodies stop working, our spirit goes to Heaven, to be with the spirits of all of those who’ve gone before. And they’re waiting for us in Heaven and they’re going to be SO HAPPY to see us, when it’s our time.

    As for WHEN we’re going to die, since saying “old” is meaningless to her, I tell her that when SHE’s a grandma and I’m a great-grandma, then I will be old and my body will stop working.

    It also works for us, because we say that the angels decide when a baby starts in a woman, by bringing a Spirit to mix with the seed from the woman and the seed from the man.

    As for what a Spirit looks like, and what Heaven is like, I answer truthfully and say “I just don’t know.” She accepts that.

    Maddy July 16, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    I’d recommend Jan Brett’s = Comet’s 9 lives. It’s great for small people and not too hideous for big people. It also makes for an excellent launch pad for discussions.
    .-= Maddy´s last blog ..Rhinotillexomania – nose picking =-.

    Lindsay July 16, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    No advice on the explaining death thing, just that I love the hats, and that Jasper is pants-less, but his toes look very toasty in those booties.

    Alice July 16, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    So… death. Well. I, too, was afraid of this discussion because I was afraid they’d become afraid. One tactic I scrupulously avoided was “It’s like going to sleep and never waking up” because HELLO insomnia and night terrors. In a nutshell (spaced out over many conversations) I’ve explained to my girls (now 8 and 7) that (1) dead means the person or animal is not there any more, you won’t see them again, but they won’t fee pain or sadness or anything else; (2) there are lots of ways to die, including accidents, diseases and just plain old age, number 3 being by far the most common method of popping your clogs; (3) children very rarely die and most people live to a ripe old age (though Sarah had one classmate die of adrenoleukodystrophy and another classmate’s dad drop dead during a triathlon), so while death can happen to anyone, I try to hammer home the concept of likelihood without using words like “actuarial tables”; (4) some people think you go to heaven when you die, but I personally don’t, nor do I think you are punished or rewarded for your actions in life. Fortunately this is not an issue since we are not affiliated with a religion that espouses these beliefs. My kids go to Hebrew school at a liberal Massachusetts synagogue where half the people (including me) are atheists, but we are united by our belief that it’s important to be kind — there. Religion in five words.
    .-= Alice´s last blog ..A most excellent vacation =-.

    daysgoby July 16, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    I wrote about this here: and the BEST place I found resources was at our local funeral home. They should be able to give you some pamphlets.

    Glad you’re home safe!
    .-= daysgoby´s last blog ..housekeeping =-.

    Catherine July 17, 2009 at 11:22 am

    My 4-year-old’s aunt died of cancer when he was almost 3, and 3 of his 4 grandparents are dead. So we’ve talked about it a lot. We are not exactly believers in the literal sense, but at his age, I think it’s OK to say “Aunt Lisa is in heaven with God.” But then when he asks “Who is God?” I say things like “You know that feeling when I first wake you up for school, and you’re still a little sleepy and we cuddle and giggle a little bit and tell each other stories, and how close and warm and happy we feel?” and he says “yeah” and I say “that feeling is God.”

    I don’t know if parenting experts would approve, but it seemed to satisfy him. Later he asked a lot of questions like “Who drives you to heaven?” which necessitated a lot of strange abstract statements like “You don’t need your body in heaven, so you don’t take it with you” and then “all the stuff that you think and feel inside you, that stuff is what you take with you” (which forced me to imagine packing a spiritual suitcase and shouting to my husband “Honey! did you remember to pack your sense of humor?” but whatever.)
    I don’t think there’s any easy answers. But I wanted him to feel safe. So far it seems OK.
    .-= Catherine ´s last blog ..Milestones =-.

    xandy July 17, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    This is your beautiful opportunity to impart your own belief system to your children. Even though it’s painful as all heck to talk about death.

    If you are very organized religion-based and have a heaven system, you can (simplistically) explain that to them; if you are of the spirituality set of beliefs, you get to talk about how we are all ultimately one and our souls join others (try that one simplistically, urgh); and if you are of a completely non-secular bent you get to talk about how great a life was lead, how you get the here-and-now to make your mark, and how important it is to live a great life on a day to day basis and to leave a good road for others to follow.

    What would be sad would be to allow someone else’s beliefs to mark the day. Leave them with yours, for now, and let them make up their own minds down the road, as they wish.

    Our 12 yo beautiful dog died last week, prematurely and unexpectedly. We just met this one in a really hard way. We were both from religious/spiritual backgrounds, yet didn’t really bring that into raising the kids, no organized sundays, no veggietales, little spirituality (hard to explain), etc etc. It was really tough for us, we were simply sad and kept expecting to see Lucy around every corner, yet, with the kids at 6.5 and 8, we were able to talk about all three options (in limited ways) and begin the conversation about free choice and belief systems. Perhaps a bit young, but it certainly made them more sensitive to others’ religious choices (and their own) and made conversations all around really interesting. All in all, it has made everyone’s lives richer for the conversations, and isn’t that what it’s about?

    Her Bad Mother July 17, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    Yes, I am trying to view it as an opportunity – both for the conversations (which, with a three year old, are interesting) and for reflecting on my own beliefs. And feelings. Which are hard to sort out while debating dinosaurs’ relationships to God, but still – the sorting is all the more rich for it.

    Thanks for your comment.

    jier July 19, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Love the post. Glad EVERYONE is okay. About explaining death to a child. I feel being honest is the best policy. I never understood saying “the dog went to live on a farm” kind of explaining. Kids understand more than we think and sometimes they don’t want a detailed list of what happens in death. Something a general idea is good enough for now.
    .-= jier´s last blog ..eating squirrels =-.

    alison July 26, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    tell her it got hit by a car and died. then ask, “that’s sad, huh?” and then move on. keep it simple, don’t cover up. kids are smart and they rely on us to be honest with them.

    Katie July 27, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    A good book that relates God to dinosaurs is by a man named Kyle Butt. I think it’s called Dinosaurs Unleashed. It explains dinosaurs and their relation to humans and God. He came to preach at my church once upon a time, and really helped me to understand better.

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