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Faith in Vermont: Inside the Blue Whale

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Posted on June 25, 2019 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



This past week, as I’ve done for the past six years, I spent three straight days at Branbury Beach State Park, where I spent three hours each day teaching nature classes to children aged 5-11 as part of an annual summer camp run by our church. 

On the second day of camp, my nature theme centered around blue whales, so I dug up a copy of one of our family’s favorite blue whale picture books (recommended years ago by my friend Amy, of Vermont Book Shop fame): Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, by Mac Barnett. The story centers around Billy Twitters, a boy who won’t do his chores, and who gets a whole new sense of responsibility when his parents buy him a blue whale to care for. In the end, Billy moves into his blue whale’s massive mouth, concluding: “Sometimes the only way to escape from the problems caused by your blue whale is to spend some time inside your blue whale.”

That line haunted me. After reading it aloud three times to my campers, I was certain that Mac Barnett was trying to tell me something profound, but it took me a while to pinpoint just what

Billy Twitters moving inside his problematic blue whale reminds me of how our family has been dealing with death lately.

Forget the elephant in the room; blue whales are the largest living creatures on earth, so I think it’s fair to say that death is the “blue whale in the room.” Unless you’ve led an eerily charmed life, you have been touched by death because -- let’s face it – living things are dying all the time. And an enormous parenting question is: How will we handle this 100-foot-long mammal that’s sitting in the corner, staring at us out of its 6-inch-wide eyes? 

In my experience, deaths come in clusters; rarely does it seem as if our family has the space to process a single, isolated death. Instead, we’ll get gobsmacked by a series of deaths, one after the other, with barely enough time to come up for air. This has certainly been the case lately. 

Over the past few months, two families with whom we’re quite close lost grandparents. Our beloved former neighbor succumbed after a fierce struggle with cancer -- and when my two daughters accompanied me to call on her husband, they saw their first dead human body. Two of our chickens died (of natural causes), and my third daughter witnessed our family dog kill one of our ducks when a door was accidently left open. This same daughter sobbed for an hour in my arms after finishing the book Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee, which involves the drowning deaths of both a sibling and a young fox. 

“Is it healthy for kids to experience so much death?” one of my daughters asked on her way out to bury the duck. 

Death is problematic. Whatever our philosophy or theology, I think that most of us, no matter how intellectually we recognize dying as an unavoidable part of living, have a gut-level sense that death is not how things are supposed to be. We would rather not think about it. And because it can seem scary and sad, we’d prefer to shield our children from it. 

In this time and place, we’re able to ignore death more than at any prior point in history. Advances in medicine have prolonged our lives and have drastically reduced the risks of dying in childbirth or childhood – and this is a very good thing. When dying does occur, it tends to take place behind the sterilized doors of a hospital, hospice, or nursing home; wakes are rarely held in our living rooms anymore. And even though something has to die in order for us to have food to live – this is true wherever you are on the spectrum from carnivore to vegan – we seldom are the ones butchering the animals, picking the fruit, or grinding the flour. Instead, we purchase our food conveniently packaged to obscure any hint of death. 

So when my daughter asked if it was healthy for children like her to experience death, my response was an unequivocal, “Yes.” I believe it’s healthy, normal – perhaps even essential – for children to encounter death. 

But it’s a lot of work for parents to walk our children through death, because it makes us feel helpless. 

For every death in our lives, my daughters have numerous questions about why death happens and what happens after death. I can give answers based on what I believe, but at a certain point I have to admit to my children that there are things about death that I neither know nor understand – things that nobodycan ever truly know or understand until they’ve crossed the threshold between the living and the dead. As a parent, it is humbling to confess ignorance.

When my daughters come to me in tears because of death that they’ve encountered either in life or in a book like Maybe a Fox, my kneejerk impulse is to fix things, when really there is very little I can do or say apart from just being with them in their sorrow. I can’t tell them honestly that death doesn’t exist or that it won’t touch their lives; I can’t even assure them that their friends, family, or their very selves will survive the day. 

Like an enormous blue whale in the room, dealing with death is a problem.

So this is where I channel Billy Twitters for my children: Instead of ignoring that blue whale in the corner, I think we need to look it in the eye, sit with it, maybe even hang out in its mouth a bit. This will not necessarily make it any less problematic, but at least it will make it more familiar.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting we or our children should develop an unhealthy obsession with death; that’s just as dysfunctional as ignoring death. We can’t stay inside the blue whale forever. At some point, we need to step back out into the sunshine and answer the question: If death is the blue whale in the room, then how should we live? 

 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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