The other morning Afton was in town due to a dentist appointment. She has been super busy with work and school so she hadn’t been “home” in a quite some time. It was good to have her home, if only for a few hours.
Before she had to leave to go back to college, I suggested we take a walk on the trails around our home. It was a bright, sunny morning and I wanted to make the best of our short visit with her. So at 10:00am, me, Afton and Aiden put on our walking shoes and out the door we went.
The trails around here are dirt trails with rolling hills all around, and right now it’s so green and pretty. There were yellow and purple flowers in the fields all around us. Afton and I admired how pretty it was, but Aiden was busy playing in the dirt, collecting sticks and kicking rocks and all the other things that 3-year olds like to do when they go on hikes.
As we were walking along, I looked down and saw a fuzzy caterpillar hurrying along the path. It seemed to be going very fast, as if it was running from something. I said, “Look! Aiden. Come see this caterpillar! He’s going so fast!”
Aiden quickly came over to where I was standing and immediately saw the fuzzy little caterpillar scurrying along the path, right by our feet. He said, “Whoa! He’s running! Where is he going, mom?”
“Well, I guess he’s in a hurry to get across the path and into the grass and shrubs.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because when he’s out in the open like this, he can be eaten by a bird or stepped on or something. He’s safer in the tall grass.” Of course I’m no caterpillar expert, but this seems logical to me. I mean, if I were a caterpillar that’s why I’d be running.
So then we watched the little guy some more until he disappeared into the grassy area along the path. And then we moved on to walk further down the path. To our surprised, there were about four more fuzzy caterpillars doing the exact same thing; moving very quickly across the dirt path, heading towards the grass. Aiden was so excited to see them all. He counted them: one, two, three, four…
The fifth caterpillar that we saw was very still. Afton and I walked over to it. I reached down and poked it to see if it would move. It didn’t. It was clearly dead. Afton said in a low voice, “Oh…don’t let Aiden see this one.”
“What? Why not?” I asked.
“Because. It’s dead.”
“So, that might upset him.”
Before I had time to think about that, Aiden came right up to where we were and he looked closely at the dead caterpillar. “What’s wrong with this one, mom?” he asked, curiously.
“This one is dead.” I said, very matter-of-fact.
Aiden crouched down just a bit to examine it up close. Then he said, “What happened, mom? Did a coyote get him?” Aiden knows that coyotes are in our hills and that they eat the rabbits that we see running wild.
“No, buddy. I don’t think coyotes bother with caterpillars. I guess this one just didn’t make it across the path safely. Sometimes that happens.”
He then stood up and continued walking down the path. Soon I heard him say, “Oh, look! Here’s a rollie-pollie!” and again he crouched down to get a closer look.
Now, here’s the thing about my almost-four-year old: a dead caterpillar isn’t going to upset him. Unfortunately this little guy has learned at a very early age that death is a part of life. His first lesson with this was when his baby brother died. Yeah, that’s a biggie. That’s learning the hard way, I’d say. His second lesson was when his dog Milo died. That wasn’t as bad as his brother dying, but still it wasn’t a walk in the park.
And today, the dead caterpillar.
I’m thinking he’s going to do well with the dead caterpillar.
And I’m not saying that it’s a good thing that Aiden has experience with death at such an early age. Shoot, if I had my way I’d trade that life experience for the experience of growing up with his baby brother. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not shielding him from the very real fact that life does indeed end – for every living thing. When our dog died, I didn’t tell Aiden that Milo went to live on grandma’s farm. No, I told him that the dog died. And yes, it’s sad. And it’s okay and normal to feel sadness. And sometimes death can feel really, really unfair, because sometimes it is unfair. But death is a part of life.
When Aaron died, a thoughtful friend gave us two books that helped to explain death to Aiden in a way that he could understand. Remember, he was only 2.5 years old at the time. Not an easy thing to explain to a toddler. But books like these can really help a parent when they are struggling to find the right words.
Someone I Loved Died by Christine Harder Tangvald
Where Are You? A Child’s Book about Loss by Laura Olivierl
Further on our walk I explained to Aiden that the caterpillars have such an interesting, beautiful life, in that they would soon turn into butterflies and fly away. I could see the confusion on his face, and so I think I might find a book for him that explains the caterpillar’s life cycle in more detail.
I think this classic might be the perfect one.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Books can be awesome for helping little ones understand hard concepts such as life…and death.
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