I was on the bus with my four-year-old daughter, Anna, last week when I received a text from her co-parent. “I just heard Lois Lilienstein died,” it read. Before responding, I did a quick Google search to confirm that Lilienstein was who I thought she was: a beloved member of the Canadian kids’ music group Sharon, Lois & Bram. She was. I paused. It was hard to wrap my head around it. Lois died?! I didn’t have time to let the news sink in before Anna interrupted my train of thought to ask about the text I’d received. I chose not to tell her about Lilienstein’s death.
Anna has grown up with Sharon, Lois & Bram as much as a kid born in 2010 possibly can. I certainly grew up with them back in the ’80s. When I watch clips from The Elephant Show now, it takes me right back to my childhood. We still have a VCR, and when Anna’s co-parent and I were still living together, we had a record player, too. These electronics made consuming songs from episodes of The Elephant Show quite easy, and we wound up with quite an extensive collection. Anna loves music and puppets and prefers watching things that have no conflict, no cause for sadness and, as she puts it, “no mean parts.” She thinks Sharon, Lois and Bram are enormous fun. For a while, she called my friend’s husband “Bram.” (His name is Sam.) When she found out that the owner of a puppet shop we visit used to work with the music group, she was star-struck.
What would it mean to Anna if she knew Lois had died? I wondered. I know it would upset her, but it’s not like Lois would suddenly be erased from our videos, and it’s not like we knew her personally. And maybe it would make sense to introduce her to the concept of death when it’s not someone she has lost in a tangible way. Would it be different if it were someone from her generation—like DJ Lance Rock, for example? What if Sharon and Bram did a live show and I wanted to take her but hadn’t told her the news about Lois? It was this last consideration that made me realize this wasn’t about Lois at all, regardless of how either of us felt about her; it was about how to address the concept of death with my daughter.
Death is unimaginable to Anna, yet she thinks about it all the time—ever since learning about Terry Fox and Remembrance Day. She’s beyond curious about death and incredibly sensitive about it. She can’t handle people talking about death, even in jest. If even the most minute thing goes wrong, she’ll ask if she’s going to die or if I’m going to die.
I dressed Anna as Kurt Cobain for Halloween when she was two, and she has seen the photos. She’ll sometimes tell people that I “know someone who died” and tell them about that costume. At some point over the past year, she processed that my father died when I was only nine years old. She asks me about this regularly, whether I was sad about it and if I still am. It’s hard, but I don’t regret telling her the truth when she was still young. She explicitly asked about it, so I would have had to avoid the conversation altogether or lie about it. Having lost my father when I was young made mortality real for me, and it’s what has made death real for Anna now.
When we got back to our apartment after our bus ride, Anna’s co-parent was there and asked if I’d told Anna about Lois. Anna overheard him and immediately asked “Who’s Lois?” We could have easily jogged her memory, but we didn’t. It was a reminder for me that not everything has to happen in the immediate moment. I still have to sort out how and when I’m going to discuss death with my daughter, but it isn’t urgent—I have time to figure things out.
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single mom by choice and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.
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