The Death Conversation with a Three-Year-Old

The Death Conversation.png

I found out that I couldn’t attend my grandmother’s funeral in my ob-gyn’s office. After my doctor observed that I was several centimeters dilated, I asked, “So I shouldn’t go to New Jersey on Monday then?” Looking up from between my legs, she said, “No, You probably shouldn’t travel out of state.” Between the fact that I missed the funeral and the baby was born that afternoon meant that I never told my older son about my grandmother’s death. He had only met her once, briefly, so it would have met little to him anyway. But it made me realize how urgent it was to talk about the subject with him.

In particular, my other grandmother is getting up in years. Sprout has met “Grammy” several times and remembers her. While her passing may be years away, there’s no way to know. Needless to say, I didn’t want finding out about her death to be Sprout’s introduction to the topic.

But I had no idea where to start.

While there are plenty of books, I didn’t want to dive into the subject via the death of pets or people yet. I wanted to establish a basic foundation first. After all, there are plenty of kids who mistakenly get the idea that death is like sleep, only forever. I also wanted death to be grounded in physical, real life experience, not just stories. His imagination is so vivid that the line between reality and fantasy is already blurred.

Fortunately, opportunities to discuss tough topics present themselves just when you need them. Or maybe I was simply relieved at not having to avoid the topic anymore.

The first opportunity arose when we found a spider in its web that wasn’t moving. When Sprout asked, “What’s that?” I simply stated, “I think it’s dead.” As I expected, he followed it up with, “Why?” I explained that sometimes living things get sick and their bodies don’t work anymore. That led to a discussion about what it means for something to be living. We did a little back-and-forth game of me throwing out a thing and him guessing if it was alive or not, including ants, rocks and trees.

The next big chance for discussion came in the form of the dreaded Disney question – where are the hero’s parents? Sitting on our bed after bath time, he looked at the clownfish on his towel and said, “It’s like Nemo.” Then he looked up at me with his huge blue eyes and asked, “Where’s Nemo’s mommy?” I sighed and went for it. “She died, honey. That’s why Daddy and I thought the beginning of the movie was really sad.” He looked at me for a moment and said, “Oh.” A second later, he declared, “I’m a little fishie!” and that was that. I was just glad he asked about Finding Nemo rather than Frozen. While the introduction to Finding Nemo is more evocative, the idea of fish – even parent fish – dying is easier than humans.

Both of those were abstract compared to the very graphic depiction of death we witnessed a few weeks ago. This was man versus nature shit. We had gone to “watch trains” for the first time in a good long while. Half a deer lay between where we were on the pedestrian bridge and the train tracks. Its head was perfectly preserved, its empty eyes staring forward. Its legs were there, strangely pale and folded as if it was sleeping. But most of its torso was gone. There was just a mangled, bloody mess in its place. Looking down at it, he asked,”What happened?” I replied, “I’m not sure, but I think a train hit it. It got really hurt and then its body stopped working.” There were a few more questions, but mainly silent contemplation from both of us. The longer I’m a parent, the more important I realize these silences are.

Since then, we’ve had a few more exchanges, most of them in passing. Each one adds a little more to his understanding.

So far, we’ve avoided the two really big questions: if he will die one day and if his parents will die. Those are going to be some more difficult conversations.

But even when that day comes, I think we’ve given him good tools for understanding it. The fact that we’re treated it as something that happens naturally will lessen some of the scarier aspects. When we do get beyond the biological, Chris and my own comfort with mortality will help us address it in a compassionate, straight-forward manner. Being a Christian who has spent a lot of time contemplating an unconventional view of heaven helps a bit. It’s easier to explain a topic to a kid when you’ve wrestled with it extensively yourself.

The hardest part will be the simple fact that death is the hardest on the people who are left behind. When I fear my own death, I do so because I would be leaving my children without a mom. As one of Sprout’s books says, “All families are sad when they lose someone they love.”

I want to teach my kids how to cope through this pain and be there for others experiencing it. While our society does a particularly crappy job talking about it, I’ve learned an immense amount from a friend who is a hospice pastor. My sister-in-law is an oncology nurse, she’ll also be a good person to talk to.

Just as having a great-grandparent pass will most likely be Sprout’s first personal experience with death, it was mine as well. I remember attending my great-grandmother’s funeral, where I was alternatively awkward and bored. But I wasn’t scared. I credit my parents for being truthful and straight-forward with me. I hope I can give the same to Sprout and Little Bird when the time finally comes.

How have you talked to your kid about death?

For more on some of my parenting struggles, be sure to read The ‘But Why?’ Phase and Parenting Fail: When I Don’t Like My Kid Very Much.

2 thoughts on “The Death Conversation with a Three-Year-Old

  1. When my oldest was just 2, she (and I) LOVED Finding Nemo. Watched it a few times a week on DVD, and every single time, I skipped the opening scene — easy to do with the disc. Until she was 5 (she’s 9 now), she thought movie started with the dad holding the surviving egg. I think I told her the whole story after I’d let her watch Bambi and had to explain that hunting incident 🙁 Which led to Dumbo…et al. Great point re: abstract vs. real-life. Recently, I’ve had to explain to my girls — simply as possible, as you suggest — situations involving death (or imminent death) of some close relatives. I let them ask their questions, which were usually quick and to the point, and answered them, in kind. As always, really enjoyed this thoughtful post.

    • Thanks for your feedback!

      As for Finding Nemo, we watched it outside on the lawn at a town event, so there was no fast-forwarding! Plus, I had completely forgotten about that section and was weeping by the end of it. The weird thing was, we watched the movie last summer. It didn’t register at all when he originally watched it and it’s been months since we’ve seen it. Something about it must have stuck in his head though.

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