Citing child development experts such as The Addams Family, our Goth-in-residence shares why she talks about death — early and often — with her kids.
This isn’t about flushing your goldfish down the toilet, saying, “Goldie is going to a Better Place,” as she swirls down the bowl. This is about Death in general: not sugarcoated, not in baby talk, not infantilizing. I always just kind of lay it out there, which is alarming to some people who are uncomfortable with mortality, i.e., most people, but not to my parents.
I basically grew up in the Jewish version of the Munsters, except my Grandpa wasn’t a vampire (at least not that I know of). My dad always talked about death and who was about to kick the bucket. He loved Dutch vanitas still-life paintings with a skull surrounded by beautiful possessions like jewels and gleaming hand-carved wooden violins — worldly treasures you can’t take with you to the grave. He always emphasized the fleeting nature of life and the importance of every day. I remember once bitching about my exhaustion after an early alarm clock. “Hey, at least you woke up!” he exclaimed.
You may find this all very macabre, but rather than cast a depressing shadow on my childhood, on the contrary, I’ve had a joyful life and remain one of the happiest people I know. Why? Because through the shopping for graveyards the way normal people tour colleges, my parents always preached that the Grim Reaper may buzz from the lobby at any time and that we need to extract the sublime out of life each moment. We always ordered dessert, turned music on after the light switch, sprung for concert tickets or crossed the city for an exhibit that was about to close. We always filched elation when we could, which offset the despair that life will inevitably chuck your way.
When it comes to kids and death, I always went with just stating it blankly: Everyone dies, so we have to be good people who help others and appreciate life while we have it. Basta. When parents sugarcoat death to me it’s like speaking in baby talk. It’s a disservice to all parties. When we had to flush our dead fish –– Gomez, LeBron, Hille and Danny Zuko Kargman –– there weren’t tears. Not because my kids are cold-blooded shits, but because we had talked about death since before they knew what it was. My personal little Wednesday Addams, Ivy Kargman, was even responsible for naming my book on the subject, “Sprinkle Glitter On My Grave,” (wherever books are sold!).
"[My dad] is a guy who sucks the marrow out of life because he’s obsessed with death, which makes him the happiest person I know."
When my beloved Aunt Leslie tragically died in a horrible freak accident, we found ourselves in shock and headed from her sudden January funeral in Manhattan, then to her gravesite in Queens –– one of the stone gardens you pass on the way from JFK and think, “Jesus, WHO is buried there?!” Answer: My family. After the funeral, the car stopped by our building to drop off the kids, who were then 4, 5 and 8. My middle one, Ivy, said she wanted to come with us to the graveyard.
“Ivy, honey, it’s freezing rain, and it’s just the coffin going into the ground. It’s sad.”
“NO. I am coming, and I want to see,” she replied.
I exchanged glances with my husband, Harry. Of course Ivy wanted to come. She is so incredibly mature beyond her years and could handle it. The other two skipped out like normal children, preferring Nickelodeon to “Thriller.”
When we arrived at the cemetery, Ivy stopped with my mother to visit her great-grandparents’ gravesites. She didn’t mind the icy lashes that seemed to be going sideways, rendering the umbrellas useless as the chill froze my entire body. But given the surroundings, it’s not like I could complain … I mean, at least I was alive. We passed rows of stones, some of which had withering tragic old flowers rotting on the headstones.
“Why do people leave flowers here?” Ivy asked. “It’s so sad because they wilt so fast.”
“Well, when they are new, they’re beautiful and a sign of color and life, which is lovely with all this stone.”
“Well I think that’s a dumb tradition,” my kindergartner ruled. “Mommy, when you die I am going to sprinkle glitter on your grave because you are fabulous and glitter is VERY hard to clean up!”
My family laughed so hard –– Yup, she’s one of us! –– and during the burial, I was so into Ivy’s comment that I decided it was going into my will. On Martha’s Vineyard, John Belushi has candy wrappers on his grave, which is funny and all, but essentially litter. I’m getting glitter.
Since then, my other two kids have come to the dark side and embraced the macabre as we do. Halloween is our Christmas, we love art with skulls to remind us to make the best of life while we’re here, and most of all, cherish time with older generations and honor them before it’s too late. My mom isn’t Goth, but she lost her own mom when she was young and is the most life-appreciating person. My dad just turned 80. At 79 he got his first tattoo and zip-lined from Zambia to Zimbabwe. This is a guy who sucks the marrow out of life because he’s obsessed with death, which makes him the happiest person I know.
For those of you who live in the other realm of denial and embrace the young man’s notion of immortality, there’s an app for you. It’s called “We Croak.” It reminds you four times a day that we are going to die, along with a quotation. Buddhist monks said the happiest people are ones who think about death every day, so this will get the job done if creepy art isn’t your thing. So Happy Holidays, Everyone! Enjoy that extra cup of eggnog because it could be your last. Just kidding. Holiday parties are merriment and joy, which the world needs more of –– before we croak.
Jill Kargman is a New York-based writer, actress and television producer. Follow her on Instagram @jillkargman.