09/22/2014 06:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Life lessons from Charlotte's Web

"She DIED???" my 7-year-old son said incredulously, tears filling his eyes.

How did I not remember that Charlotte died in the end? After all, it had been a mere 30 years since I last entered the magical world of Wilbur and Templeton, Fern and Avery. Charlotte's Web is a children's classic, and all children's stories have fairy tale endings, right? How in the world did I forget this little detail when I chose to read this book to my children night after night?

My young children are fortunate enough to have never experienced the harsh realities of life and death. The closest they have come is an imaginary spider dying. Sure, they KNOW about death. Our dog is 16 and barely hanging on. My grandmother is 93, becoming more and more frail each time they see her. We talk about "one day" and what happens after people die. But they have not yet been faced with it directly.

My aunt passed away 10 months ago from aggressive metastatic lung cancer, only seven weeks after she was diagnosed. And although my children did not know her well, they ask from time to time when we will go visit her again. Why have I not told them she passed away?

I know better than to try to avoid the tough issues. I'm a pediatrician, for goodness sake. I break bad news to people all the time. I have mastered the art of speaking to children on their level, having the difficult discussions and explaining the tough diagnoses. So why are the hard topics so difficult to talk about when it comes to my own children?

Because to be honest, a small part of me just wants to shield my young boys from the realities of life. To protect them from the harsh nitty-gritty of divorce, sickness, unanswered prayers, death. To keep them innocent for as long as I can. And even though I know that is impossible, I want just one more day of purity.

But would I have chosen a different book if I had remembered Charlotte's ultimate demise? Looking back, most definitely not. I know deep down that children need open, honest answers. They need a place to feel safe to talk about their sad feelings, to practice grief before real tragedy invades their innocence.

So tonight, we talked about Charlotte. About how she was a true friend and she made other lives better even though she lost her own in the end. About how she left a legacy and what it means to live life to the fullest. And maybe soon we will have to talk about our dog, my aunt, or even my beloved grandmother. But for tonight, Charlotte was a good start, both for them and for me.


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