Talking to Young Kids About Death
Bean and I sat over lunch the other day and I coaxed her to eat her carrots the same way I always do: Make sure you eat all those carrots, they’ll help you grow up big and strong.
“Will I be bigger than YOU if I eat my carrots?”
“Well, not immediately bigger than me, but maybe someday you’ll be taller than I am.”
She looks at me thoughtfully and remains quiet for a minute.
“I know when I’ll be bigger than you! I’ll be bigger than you when you get, um, um –,” she trails off, and a look of worry — almost panic — spreads across her face.
“When you get …” she tries continuing the thought again. “You know, when you get … I can’t say it. When you’re really (she hunches over and shrinks herself up like she’s aged 70 or 80 years in a second) … and you have to walk with a stick.”
“When I get old?” I finish for her, cringing inwardly.
And she starts to cry.
“I don’t want you to get old Mama! I don’t want you to get old! I want you to stay just like you are now, forever.
“I know, B. I don’t really love the idea of getting old, either, but everybody’s always getting older, all the time. That’s just how it works, babe. You’re getting older every minute. Older and bigger and smarter and stronger.”
“But Mama if you get old does that mean you’re gonna die?”
Sigh. I gather my wits about me and quickly rattle off the best answer I can coax out past the aching cry blooming grey like a storm cloud in my chest and throat
“Yes. Someday I’ll die, but not for a very long time. You’ll probably be my age before I die, honey. Don’t worry about it right now, okay? I won’t die before God is ready for me to, and that means He’ll make sure you’re strong enough to handle it, too.”
“Will Nana die?”
“Yes,” I say calmly.
And I just fall silent — I’m a terrified animal trapped in a net, wild-eyed and panicking. I want to shriek and scratch and claw my way out of this discussion.
“What about Peabody? Will Peabody get old and die?”
“Eventually, everyone does, Bean. Everyone who lives has to die. But you and Peabody will have one another for such a long time, sweetie. There’s no need to worry about this any time soon.”
“When you die, we can just take you to the hospital and have them make you better.”
“No. When we’re sick, we go to the doctor or the hospital to get better. But when we’re dead, that’s the end. That’s all. We can’t get better anymore. But Bean?”
(I take a deep breath. I don’t really have anything ready on the whole Christianity/God/Eternal Life thing ready for this child in this moment, but I instantly assess and know I’ve got to get it in here, in this first Big Discussion, to build the groundwork for discussions to come.)
“Remember what Daddy and I’ve told you about Jesus and His sacrifice for God’s forgiveness of the bad things we do and how God is our Father in Heaven?”
“Well, when we love God and we let Jesus take over our lives for us, then we really don't die. We leave here, and we leave our families for awhile, but we go to Heaven to be with God. And Heaven’s a wonderful place where nothing bad ever happens and everyone is always happy and never hurts or cries.”
(It comes out very awkward and halting and like I doubt it all, even though I don’t doubt it one little bit. I’m just unsure of how to adequately convey something so abstract to my very smart, very pragmatic, very thoughtful little girl. I know I’m not mentally or emotionally prepared to answer the next round of her questions. I have no idea where she’ll even want to go with this. It’s just all too complicated for her mind to comprehend, yet too important for her heart not to hear. I’ve been blindsided. All I can do is hope I don’t say something that makes her more fearful.)
She glazes over a little bit.
She tells me one more time she wants me to stay her young Mama forever and OH YES! Not go to Bunco tonight.
Then I watch her face as she realizes, in an instant, that if I go ahead and go to Bunco tonight, Daddy’ll let her watch Sponge Bob, or perhaps break out his boxed set of Looney Toons DVDs, and they’ll eat popcorn together in our bed, and she changes her mind.
“Wait Mama! Actually, you CAN go to Bunco tonight, after all. I’ll be okay.”
Off she trots to find her flip-flops and head outside to ride her bike.
And I reach for a box of tissues and force myself to begin the work of figuring out how to make my own heart more ready for the next Big Discussion.
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