I had just finished giving my daughter a bath, helping her brush her teeth, and getting her ready for bed. I sat in the living on the couch, watching something on television. Her mother was now helping her fall asleep, reading some books to her, and saying goodnight. As is the routine my daughter has to prolong her awake hours, she always has to go to the bathroom right before she officially lays down for sleep. As she and her mother were walking out of the bathroom and into the hallway, I heard her ask her mother, “So when we die, our skeletons come out, right?”
It was certainly not the first time that macabre questions had become a focus of my four year old daughter’s thoughts. Recently we had two family friends whose dogs, dogs that my daughter absolutely loved, pass away. The death of Charlie and Armand became a point of discussion for a few days. Coming to terms with not seeing Charlie on the way to school and not seeing Armand when we visited our friends was a big process for her four year old mind. Of course, trying to explain this to a four year old was a big process for my thirty five year old mind.
A week ago, her mother and I had attended a celebration ceremony for a beloved colleague that had passed away after a battle with cancer. Again, my daughter, Hailey, was confronted with questions of life and questions of death. She did not attend the ceremony with us and in some sense, I am glad she did not. There was an open casket and lots of tears and I cannot imagine how I would have gone about answering those questions. I couldn’t even answer my own.
To say it is a strangely confusing time when your child begins to learn about mortality would be an understatement. An understatement because most four year olds spend their days celebrating life: dancing, laughing, running nonstop from wake to sleep- it is not a thought that you would expect from a child, or at least not one I had expected. That being said, death is a part of life. It is a natural part of childhood development for some. They are exposed to it in movies- remember when Simba’s father died in the stampede in The Lion King? Grandparents, siblings, parents, and friends die. I was five when my own grandfather had a heart attack and died. I was on his lap when it happened. I had fallen off and quickly went to get his glasses that had come off when we fell off the chair. He was reading me a story. I did not know what it was all about, but I knew I would not see my grandfather again. That’s was the lady from the ambulance explained to me as I sat on the couch and watched them take my blanketed grandpa out of the home on a stretcher.
As strange as this conversation is with your child, keep in mind, it’s a natural conversation. As parents, we are certainly no different. We have questions about death and life. For our kids, it might be the first time they are confronted with such experiences, questions, and thoughts. If you are anything like me, I wanted to be honest with her as we discussed life and death; and at the same time, I did not want to confuse her too much. How do you discuss death and mortality in terms that a child will understand? And then you realize it’s natural, and you ask, who really understands it? I would rather she is curious, talks about the loss and talks about those that have lost. I would rather she explores empathy, sadness, and the confusion that comes along with the passing of a loved one. I would rather that as she does, I am there to explore it with her. When she asks about what happens after you die, I would like to talk to her about what that means and about what she thinks it means. It is part of life.
Image Credit: Elias Gayles