Thursday, May 26, 2011

How Not to Wish Someone a Happy Birthday

My father’s birthday is coming up so we asked our son to make him a birthday card. As Kai is all about numbers, he wanted to know how old Ojiichan will be. When we told him, Kai exclaimed, “86?! That is really old.” He went on to say, “I don’t know if Ojiichan will live ‘till the end of the year. I think he might be dead soon.”

He said it very matter-of-factly, without a trace of sadness. My wife and I looked at each other, feeling a bit stunned. Our first reaction was to tell him not to say things like that. But, then we realized that this was a teachable moment.

We told Kai that you never know how long someone will live. Just because someone is 86 does not necessarily mean that they will die soon. Some people live to be 90 and a few even make it to 100. Others die younger; you just never know. We told him that it is not nice to say things like someone may die soon. Instead, we should appreciate the person and be kind to them, especially if they are older.

I don’t know how much of that sunk in with him. The whole episode left me wondering if all kids are like this. Do kids just not comprehend the gravity of death until they first experience the loss of a loved one? Do kids with autism tend to be less emotional about death? Or, is Kai unique in this regard?

Once we had our talk, Kai made the birthday card. After he wrote “Happy Birthday Ojiichan,” he drew a picture of a big balloon with the number 86 on it. Then, to really emphasize the age, before we could stop him, he added two more 86s to the card. He also went on to draw what he told us is a flower with 86 petals on it, and a tree trunk with 86 rings.

As my dad does not like to be reminded of his age, this card is really going to get him stirred up. But because it comes from his grandson, I think that he will like it anyway.

Still, perhaps it’s best not to let Kai talk to Ojiichan on the phone on his birthday. After all, there’s nothing like blurting out a comment about death to dampen the birthday spirit.

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