What a hermit crab named Nigel taught me about death and parenting

Jared Bilski

THE WASHINGTON POST – Emma takes one last look at the empty hermit crab cage. “I guess he really is gone then,” she said dejectedly. I think the moment is over, but my soon-to-be-four-year-old daughter is far from done. With dramatic abandon, she collapses on the ground and, in between heavy, audible sobbing, wails, “Nigel did so much for us! It’s all my fault he’s dead!” Through osmosis, Emma’s breakdown carries over to her two-year-old brother, Jake, and we’re off. For the next 15 minutes, I sit in an easy chair clutching my toddlers, whispering soothing words and secretly wondering whether they’ll ever love me as much as they loved Nigel.

To be clear, Nigel didn’t do much for us. For one thing, he lived exactly two days. And it wasn’t my daughter’s fault he died. Nigel was a Jersey Shore hermit crab – the boardwalk equivalent of a carnival goldfish. As the carnival worker hands you the plastic bag with your new pet, you can practically hear him thinking, “Have fun explaining to those cute kiddos of yours why this fish is floating at the top of the bowl tomorrow morning.”

I never expected Nigel to live a full life with us, but Emma clearly did. Her grief over Nigel’s passing is only part of her newfound obsession with death. Like all concepts my daughter can’t quite wrap her head around, she has been talking about death constantly of late. While sometimes the topic makes her emotional (a la Nigel), at other times she’s unnervingly unaffected when she talks about the shedding of one’s mortal coil.

Recently, she walked up to me and, apropos of nothing, blurted out, “Dad, you are very old, so you will die soon.” She said it so casually I thought she must’ve received the message from the great beyond. “Yes, but did you happen to find out how soon, sweetie?” I wanted to ask.

In addition to Nigel, Emma also mourns people she has never met. Sometimes my wife or I will catch her moping around the house and when we ask what’s wrong, she’ll burst into tears. “It’s just, I miss Grampa Gary and Grampa Don so much,” she’ll say, snot-covered and red-faced. Grampa Gary and Grampa Don were dead long before my emotionally precocious daughter came into this world, but if you saw the anguish in this little girl’s face, you would probably think she was raised by said grandfathers.

In between the adorable, tweet-worthy soundbites, Emma asks me earnest questions. What happens after you die? Why do people have to die? Are Grampa Gary and Grampa Don in heaven?

Of course, I have no answers. Not only that, I struggle with the very same questions as Emma. What happens when you die? The intellectual part of me says nothing happens; when we die, we simply cease to exist. But the emotional part of me can’t rule out the possibility of some type of afterlife, mainly because I can’t fathom the idea of leaving this world and never seeing my hermit-crab mourning children again.

This is the part where I’m supposed to talk about the many valuable lessons about death I’ve learned through my child. The problem is, that just isn’t the case. Instead of infusing me with wisdom, Emma’s recent death obsession has revealed one very uncomfortable truth to me: A key aspect of parenting is advising your children on things you know absolutely nothing about. I have no idea how parents raised children before you could go to your phone for answers on “toddler sleep regression survival tips” and more obscure questions or concerns.

But even with the trusted counsel of the almighty Google search, there are some questions – that is, what happens when you die? – that even the interwebs can’t help you with.

In the future, my children will draw from their friends, family, teachers and myriad other sources to help them make sense of the world in which they live. For the time being, though, my wife and I are their go-to resources. These poor things honestly believe we have the answers. Unfortunately for them, we (or at least I) know even less than the average person.

True, I could lie my way through the tricky conversations. Lying is an essential part of raising toddlers. If you think that it’s unethical to lie to a child, then you’ve obviously never had to wrangle two buck-wild, uncooperative toddlers into the car to avoid missing a mandatory work meeting. With toddlers (and some adults), alternative facts are a survival mechanism at times.

But for life’s bigger questions – those existential What-Does-It-All-Mean quandaries – I think I owe it to my kids to be honest, to let them know what I do and, more importantly, don’t know. That’s why when Emma asks me what happens after people die, I don’t speak in absolutes. I use concepts she can grasp from sources that are familiar and say things like, “When we die, no one knows for sure. Some people believe we go to heaven to be with other people who died, and some people believe the person’s spirit stays with us, like Mufasa.”

I hope Emma’s innocent questions about death are only the beginning. As my children grow, I want them to come to me and ask the difficult questions. That means I can’t misrepresent what I know or give them sugar-coated easy answers that will eventually be exposed as cop-out responses down the line. I have to be honest with them – even if doing so is harder and more uncomfortable for me than I’d like.

Maybe, just maybe, if I make this a top priority in raising my kids, Jake and Emma will love me as much as they loved that hermit crab. RIP Nigel, 19/7/2019-21/7/2019.