I ran into a woman and her son at a dessert place near my home. I remember the boy and his brother from swim lessons, and have had several nice conversations with their father. I feel I know the whole family, but I admit I don’t know the mother particularly well. She is now on my list of greatest moms in the world.
As we walked toward home—she and her son and my husband and I—she asked about the concept and inspiration behind my new project. I sort of stuttered. I’ve had conversations about this for almost a year now, mostly with adults. I’d never tailored my schpiel for a youth audience to include the critical event, the drowning death of an eight-year old girl in a nearby private pool, that motivated my research and led me to found Backyard Lifeguards.
I hesitated because the child could hear. She looked at me and said, “You can say it. He needs to know.” So I directed my attention to the child. I told him about a little girl that sank to the bottom of a pool when nobody saw her. Then I used the D word.
“She died,” I told him.
I talked about her brother and her mother and her father who will never see her again, and who miss her very much. “That’s so sad,” the boy said.
I told him that I started a company to watch over the pools in people’s backyards. I said that swimming is fun but also dangerous, especially for people who don’t know how or who say or pretend they’re good at it when they really aren’t, because they don’t want to be made fun of or left out. I revealed that sometimes grown-ups don’t know this stuff, and that they don’t always know how to watch a pool like a person who does it for their job. He knew the name for that. Lifeguard. It’s my second-favorite ‘L’ word.
There’s another ‘D’ word that gets used far too often, because there are way too many occasions to do so. Drowning. It’s the second leading cause of accidental death among children. One in four people know someone who drowned. I do. I know lots of other people who do, too. And now so does everyone who knew that little girl.
So often we tiptoe around what drowning really means, the finality of it, because we think kids won’t understand or we don’t want to scare them. Professionally, I don’t talk about death because I don’t want to confuse kids or take liberties with information parents have strong feelings about, as it’s such a personal thing. I’m Italian. We do weddings and funerals in elaborate and dramatic ways. And I married into the Irish, for whom a wake is just another occasion to raise a glass. Regardless of our background, I know we’ve all had our share of loss, but I never assume that death is a topic I should breach with someone else’s child.
I thanked that amazingly open mom for giving me permission to be candid with her son. I hope she approves of the way I handled it. She got me thinking about ways to carefully incorporate it into BL’s educational programming for families and schools. Maybe finding ways to talk about it will help us prevent it.