My Daughter Discovers Death: the painful and beautiful parts of processing loss with a four year old

October 19, 2017


 Photo of Simza by Kai MacDonald


I’m learning anew about grief and loss this year. And by loss, I do mean death. And so is my daughter, who is 4 years old. As she discovers death through me and my partner, I am understanding some things about death through her. In a national climate of violent death on solid repeat, the experience of sharing a loving, well-tended, intimate, death is precious. I thought I’d share this with you all, because part of what I am processing about death has a whole lot to do with being a mother. As a culture, as a person, how do I face death? How do you face death? How do you share death with loved ones? How do we grieve, separately and together? What is my child learning? What are all of our children learning?


Anything I write these days feels heavy with the context of the United States;

Endless police murders of black, brown and queer people

Endless violence toward immigrant, indigenous and poor peoples

Mass shootings

Deaths by hurricanes and fires and an earthquake just past our border, affecting disproportionately poor people, elders and black and brown peoples.  

Aggressive government efforts to brutally kill our animal kin in the name of “population control”

Waters have been compromised and the life within them disregarded as pipelines continue to be built.

Plants, lands, animals and people in rippling waves of proximity to me have died this year. The trauma is tangible, palpable.


And I, like many of you, feel the waves washing over me. They sound like waves against the shore. “Loss, loss, loss, loss.”


The sound/feel/visual overwhelm of these losses feels utterly overwhelming and ever-present to me. You too? What do we do? What can we do other than find balance through learning how to grieve, realigning with rituals and traditions around death that give us space and time? Give us voice. Give us catharsis and reprieve. Until the next wave comes.


At age almost-four, Simza was (at least intellectually) unaware of this context when death arrived in our lives, up close and personal. She witnessed this loss intimately, and it’s shaping her.  



The way my partner, Kai, loved their mama, who they call/ed “Mamakai” is the way I hope Simza will love me when she is grown. It’s that rare love, that genuine closeness, that some adults are able to maintain with their mothers. They cherished each other.


When Mamakai got diagnosed with lung cancer, Kai and their brother helped her move into a small, new, rented house. And the two of them moved in with her to care for her through her medical treatments and end of life. It was a temporary home with the familiarity of family love.They lived in close quarters, where intimacy with Mamakai’s illness was unavoidable. When we visited, Simza came to understand that Mamakai was sick. She saw and felt Mamakai’s weakness, fatigue and pain. Simza is a bold and curious kid so she had questions about it. Could we give her medicine?


When Mamakai stopped treatments, she declined quickly. “She’s dying,” I told Simza. Soon she won’t be here anymore.


 Thank you to our Teachers, Moana and Elena

Moana and Elena, in years to come I will remind Simza of how you taught her in the most beautiful, shimmering, blue, way about how the ancestors can guide us. You made visible to her the way the soul can fly free of the body at the moment of death. And that this is a thing to mourn….but this is also a thing to celebrate. Elena, you showed Simza how to celebrate the ancestors and that this is a thing people do together, as a community. But in your story we also learned it can be hard to face the honoring and celebration when the loss is stinging and altogether too real.


Let me be clear; though Disney made the film “Moana” and the tv show, “Elena of Avalor” I am not thanking Disney. They are a company that has upheld white supremacy for a century and has some MAJOR inventory and accountability to reckon with. But I have profound gratitude that these stories exist and that they are so popular. Who I am actually thanking here are the peoples, traditions and cultures on whom Disney capitalized.


Thank you, Pacific Islanders, for the story of Moana. Thank you, people of the Latin and Hispanic cultures that have inspired the story of Elena of Avalor. In this heartbreak of mother-loss, learning about death and spirit from you helped my daughter understand something sacred.



As Mamakai was dying in the livingroom, Simza and I watched Moana upstairs in the bedroom. We watched it several times in the weeks leading up to and after her death. Each time, Simza seemed to comprehend more fully that death means “no more body”. Death means this elusive-but-ever-more-tangible concept; spirit.




Without death, there is no Spirit

I am a spiritual teacher. Spirituality is my livelihood and my daily practice. Since her birth, I’ve been singing to Simza, sharing rituals with her, lighting candles, saying prayers and reading stories, all about spirit in various ways shapes and forms. But it wasn’t until death was near that something clicked. There’s more to life than we can see. The material becomes immaterial. Mamakai will die and then what? Of course, I don’t know any more than you do what the “then what” will be. But I believe that our ancestors are with us in spirit. In spirit? Yes. In the realm we see only with the heart, in the place we must use our imaginal and intuitive senses to understand. With death close by, a door appeared for Simza. A way to understand, feel and see something new, something beyond. This was a thing I couldn’t teach her. I could only give her language. And the reflection of movies, that showed her she is not alone in this new understanding.


Once the conceptual door of death and spirit appeared and the lightbulb lit, there was an immediate change in Simza. She started making up stories about goddesses who live in her toys, the garden, the bathtub. She wanted to make “an altar” like the ones Kai and I keep for our personal spiritual practice. She has it set up in her room, and has been remarkably diligent about keeping the marbles inside the shell, carefully centered in a circle of rocks. When she finds new special things, particularly in nature, she wants to bring them there. Watching Simza develop her own spirituality has been the greatest gift for me in all of this; the balm of watching life cycles in action: one fading, one emerging.


Singing and Crying

The week before Mamakai died, our amazing community rallied around Kai and all of us with abundant food and extra hours of caring for Simza, so I could be with Kai as much as possible. Members of The ISB Wheel community that Kai and I are a part of came over to sing to her. As a community that practices shamanic principles, we weren’t just singing pretty songs, though that is a powerful part of it. We were offering our prayers of courage to Mamakai, that she would not feel afraid in walking the journey of death. Simza was there for the singing. She knows all these people well and calls them our “circle family” We sang holding hands around Mamakai’s hospice bed, set up in the cramped living room. Kai was on the bed talking to her gently. Her eyes flew open when the song started and sat up, with Kai’s help, for a moment. I saw her lips moving and heard something like “beautiful” before she laid back down. The room was dark and heavy.


It’s hard describe this part with any justice. Mamakai was so frail and small and withered. She was in pain and losing awareness quickly. And my sweet love Kai, whose heart was breaking every single moment, was endlessly patient and fun and encouraging to her. One friend who came to sing with us, and whose mother abandoned her and her siblings as children, said that witnessing the love between them on this day healed something in her that she didn’t even know was hurting. The love that is possible in this generous, aching, paradox of simple devotion and complex letting go.


We did our best to include Simza without overwhelming her. But, no surprise, the next day, she had the biggest meltdown she’s ever had in her entire life so far. Kai and I were laying in bed. I think it was morning? I think we were getting ready to get up? To be honest, some details are fuzzy while others are crystal clear. I know that Simza came and climbed in the bed. We talked about getting ready for school and she asked what I had packed in her lunchbox. With very little warning, she started unraveling. I packed the wrong thing. Her body heaved with sobs. I told her I’d change it to the thing she wanted. She sobbed harder, casting around for something new to use as her outlet. She settled on the cup I had used to prop open my window to let in the spring air. What was that cup?! She didn’t like it! She hiccupped and gasped and tears kept flowing. So I held her in my arms and whispered “it’s ok to be sad.” Her little body was shaking.


She said “I just can’t stop crying!” I think we were all crying by this time. What can you do? What else can you do?


“You can cry as much as you need to. It’s ok to cry.”


The Crossing Over

A few days later, Mamakai took her last breath. Kai was alone with her at the time. I went over as soon as I could. Kai and their two siblings were there. They annointed her body with cedar oil, and I sang songs of mourning/blessing. It was night and there were candles all around. The siblings covered her in a red cloth and placed flowers over her, adorning her. It had moments of awkwardness and humor...none of us really knew what we were doing, but we wanted her to have a good death. A death with dignity, beauty, love, gentleness. So even though we fumbled through ritual that didn’t feel 100% familiar and fluid, it felt sacred. And there was time. There were hours  before anyone was called to come and take a record. Time to cry in short, intense bursts. Time to pace the floor. Time to stare at her, touch her skin, feel the presence of her physical being. Time before the men came to take her body away to be cremated. Was it enough time? No. There’s never enough time when it’s time to let go.

Photo by Kai MacDonald

Still with us in Spirit

It surprises me when Simza brings up Mamakai on her own. One time when we were camping this summer, we went to a small lake beach. Simza made a big sand pile and spent some time decorating it on her own. When Kai and I came over, she told us it was a chocolate cake for Mamakai, because she loves chocolate cake (Truth. She did!). We helped her continue to decorate it, and praised her for remembering to pay attention to Mamakai. We assured her that Mamakai’s spirit was surely so happy to have this nice cake.



Kai leaves offerings for mamakai too. Flowers by the water, feathers and sticks and stones in carefully gathered arrangements when we go adventuring. Simza sees this and helps sometimes. I’m sure it fuels her questions. Why is mamakai a spirit? Why can’t we see her? The conversation happens in short blips on car rides or bed time. The other day she asked “will you die? Will I die?” Inevitable questions. Heartbreaking ones. The ones you can’t avoid but want to so badly.


An altar for Mamakai, made by Kai and Simza. Photo by Kai MacDonald


A thing about parenting

Speaking of those inevitable, heartbreaking questions. I remember when I was trying to get pregnant, talking to a friend about why I wanted to be a parent. I remember facing some grim realizations; there are no promises in parenting. There’s no guarantee that you and your child will like each other. There’s no guarantee that your child will live to adulthood, or outlive you as an adult. There’s no guarantee that you will live to see your child into adulthood. Parenting has the potential for more grief than you could possibly imagine, in addition to the potential for unfathomable joy and fulfillment and love.


So why risk it? I knew that no matter what happened, parenting would change me, shape me, affect everything that I would ever be or do from then on. I chose parenthood because I believe in this journey of being changed by love, wherever it takes me.


When Mamakai was dying, she was grieving the loss of the future with her children. The grandchildren she wouldn’t get to meet, the weddings, the graduations, the holidays, the changing of the seasons and the daily ups and downs her grown children shared with her. Simza’s question “Will you die? Will I die?” in the wake of of this grief causes a chasm of vulnerability to open up in me. All I can say to her is “I’ll do everything I can to stay healthy and safe for a long long time, and I want you to do the same, ok?” But as I say it, I am aware of how fragile this life is and how desperately I want some impossible reassurance.


Learning to grieve

It’s been five months and Kai still cries more days than not. When Simza is nearby, she wants to know what’s wrong. One of us will tell her that Kai is sad because they miss Mamakai. She comes over and wraps her arms around Kai and gives them a hug and kiss and look of genuine concern. She sees candles lit in front of Mamakai’s picture. I know she sees and feels the way we, as a family, are doing our best to make space for this honest process to be visible and well tended.


But even with the support of amazing, validating communities of spiritual practice, work and school, we STILL live in a culture that expects life to go on as normal right on the heels of loss. And in the intimate space of our house, it’s not much different. Kai might be grieving, but dinner needs to get made, bathtime needs to happen, we need to figure something out about the days to come. More often than not, Kai goes somewhere private for as long as it takes for the wave of grief to pass enough to manage, while I carry on with the task at hand.


Imagining a Different Way

I wish there was a temple of quiet reverence me and Simza and Kai could all go to, everyday, for just a little time. There, other people would also be grieving whatever was on their hearts - losses, heartbreaks, anger - for aches intimate or distant, personal or collective. I wish we could see each other and just feel solidarity. We could leave our small shrines of candles and flowers and sticks and stones to be noticed by others who enter. And those who feel called to the sacred work of supporting grievers could be there to quietly rock with us, offer a gentle hand, meet our eyes with wisdom and knowing.


Imagining a temple for grief comes from work I’m doing with In Sacred Balance and The Wheel. Over the last few years, we’ve been working with grief as a community, and creating this temple space for each other in various ways. It has been critical re-education for me in this time when my heart feels pummelled, and my loved one(s) are suffering. It takes work to create space for community rituals of grieving, but we need it. We need it.




I don’t yet know how to bring Simza into experiences of community grieving. I share ritual with adults, knowing that we need the space to tend our hearts without interruption. I can write a piece like this and share it with Kai, and share it with all of you, and we can witness each other in finding common stories. We can do this in person or virtually. But what about Simza? How will her new understanding of death be reflected and held? I fear that without community practices that include her participation, she will be isolated ALREADY, at age 4, reinforcing a cultural pattern that is so hard to break out of.


A practice of Ancestor reverence and emotional honesty

As the years go on, I hope to find ways to create more visible, public experiences that include children around honoring the dead and grieving. But in the meantime, in the intimate space of my household, we will continue to talk about death and ancestors and sadness. We’ll keep on putting pictures out, not just of Mamakai, but of other relatives and loved ones we’ve lost. I’d like to start adding pictures of peoples, lands, animals and plants that have been lost, too, on these altars of memory and honor. I want Simza to have enough memories of tending grief as a family that, as she gets older, she’ll recognize when she needs this space and practice for herself. She’ll know what to do. Or at least, where to start.


Do you have stories of tending grief with children in your life? I’d love to hear them!




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