Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Conversations about death with a 5-year-old

I am slightly jealous of religious people today. This morning, I had a conversation with Max about death, our second ever on this topic, and I can see where it is so much easier to have a ready-made fairytale story to explain things to kids. When my grandmother died in April, I chose not to bring it up to Max because he didn't know her well and I felt it would confuse and/or scare him... I decided it would be better to wait until he asked questions instead. A couple weeks after she died, out of the blue he asked to go see her, which was unusual because he had never asked that before. I'm sure he must have picked up on bits of the adult conversations going on around him. Here's how it went:

Max: Hey, we need to go see Great Grandma!
Me: We can't, honey.
Max: Why?
Me: Well, she died.
Max: She DIED?
Me: Yes.
Max: Why?
Me: Well, she was an old lady and she had lived a long, long time, and it was just her time to go.
Max: Why?
Me: Well, everybody dies, eventually.
Max: I don't want Gommy to die!
Me: Me neither! Hopefully that won't happen for a long time.
Max: Are you gonna die?
Me: Yes, someday.
Max: I don't want you to die!
Me: Me neither!
Max: Am I gonna die?
Me: Yes, someday. But you don't need to worry about it right now. It won't be until after you're an old man, after you get married and have babies, and those babies grow up and have your grandbabies.
Max: Oh, okay.

And that was pretty much it. Until this morning, about three months later, when he started asking questions again. Besides the subject matter, it's the out-of-the-blue-ness that throws me off - I was barely awake yet and suddenly we're having this heavy discussion.

Max: Remember when Great Grandma died? When is she coming back?
Me: She's not, honey. When you're dead, you're dead. You don't get to come back.
Max: Really?
Me: Yes.
Max: Am I gonna die?
Me: Yes, someday.
Max: I don't wanna die!
Me: I don't want you to either.
Max: When will it happen?
Me: Nobody knows. Hopefully it won't be for a very, very long time. Like when you're an old, old man.
Max: Will it hurt?
Me: I don't know. Nobody knows what it will be like for them.
Max: And you're gonna die?
Me: Yes, someday. Hopefully not for a long time.
Max: And Dad? And Emmett?
Me: Yep.
Max: This is making me really sad.
Me: I know. It's not something I like to think about. It's kinda scary, huh?
Max: Yeah.
Me: Well it's scary for grownups too. But you don't have to be worried about it because it's not going to happen for a long, long time, okay?
Max: Okay.

But today he did keep worrying about it, almost to the point of tears. He kept asking me what happens and I kept telling him no one knows. Finally, I did use "Lots of people think you go to a place called Heaven when you die, where you get to be with all your friends and family who died before you. But nobody really knows for sure." Had he asked me if I believed that, I would have answered truthfully that while I think it's a nice idea, I don't really believe it, no. I felt a little dirty for bringing it up, but I thought it might ease his worries a bit, although I don't think it really did. When he's older, we can have more in-depth and sophisticated conversations about things. But for now I'm trying to find balance between being open and honest yet keeping him from being afraid and anxious. Tricky stuff.

How do YOU talk to your kids about death? I'm curious how others handle it...


  1. It sounds to me like you're doing a great job with a tough subject! I've had similar discussions with my 6 year old. I have told him that there is no way to know what happens after death, but that I personally believe that we only get one life. So I've told him that it's therefore very important to live a good life, to be a good person, to always make time for the people you love, and to be a good friend. I wish I could say that this took away all his anxiety. But frankly, I wonder what people say to their kids when it dawns on their child that the family member or friend they've lost, according to their faith, is enduring everlasting torment because the loved one didn't have quite the right religious beliefs. Or, even worse, that the child should feel guilty about it because they didn't try hard enough to convert the person they loved. After all, heaven is only for the people who believe just the right thing!

    Oddly enough, we've been reading about genetics together, and discovered that genetics explains the whole reason for death. Microbes that reproduce asexually by splitting or budding into two genetically identical beings, actually do not technically have lifespans. They also have a very limited ability to adapt to new conditions. This actually works pretty well for extremely simple life forms, but not so much for anything complex. Sexual reproduction allows for new genetic material to be exchanged, and evolution to happen. But it necessitates that the older generation dies out, so that the species as a whole can remain healthy and continue to adapt. Of course, that isn't going to make anybody feel great about death. But somehow my son actually did appreciate knowing that there is a true reason that people all have to die someday.

  2. Thanks, Laura. We did end up having several conversations yesterday - he kept bringing it up again and having more questions. I did tell him that that's one reason why it's important to be a good person, so that people will remember him and miss him when he's gone, and that in a way he would live on in their memories of him. I also told him that one day he'll be a daddy and his kids, and their kids, and so on, will live on after him too. One thing that did seem to help put things in perspective was, I asked him how old he is, and when he responded "5" I said, "Well she (Great Grandma) was 92." And he was quite impressed by that number. "NINETY TWO?! Whoa... that's a LONG time!" Of course, then he started asking me the ages of everyone in the family, I suppose to gauge how long we all have left... so there's still a bit of confusion there. But I'll leave tragedies and premature death for another day I think.

    I completely agree with you that it is outrageously cruel to a child to allow them to believe their loved ones could be burning in hell, if they didn't believe and behave just right. I could go on for days about how mad that makes me. Also - very cool about the genetics angle - what a great way to put things. I think that's probably still a bit over Max's head but when we get there, I'll be sure to frame it like that.

  3. I say just about the same thing as you have. We've had pets die and I have related human to that. Sometimes my son will say he misses Great Grandma. I respond with something like, "That's a good thing. It means you love her and you'll always her. When I miss Grandma I think about all the fun things we did together and all the things she taught me. Did you know that Grandma taught me how to make pie? Would you like to make a pie today? (Or tell me about something you and Great Grandma did together. etc.)

    As far as the afterlife in concerned, I say that people really have no idea what happens after death and it is far better to think about life and living.


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