Difficult Conversations with Kids: How to Talk to Your Children About Death

When your toddler asks about dying, what do you say?

Yesterday while Coraline and I were in the car she started one of those funny, aimlessly rambling stories only a toddler can tell (okay, a toddler and your drunk uncle) — the kind that comes out of nowhere about people you’ve never heard of doing things people can’t really do and ends anti-climactically but with panache on the part of the teller. So there was some guy whose name was a bad word and he did some stuff and then he died. “He died Mama, and he was dead, dead, dead.” The End. But then she added “But you and me, Mama, we’re never going to die. We’re never going to be dead. Not you and me.” I reflexively sucked in some air, but before I could blurt out a correction (“No kid, we will both die. Someday. Guaranteed.”) I paused, panicked. This isn’t the first time I’ve been here — just last summer I blogged about feeling overwhelmed discussing major themes with Coraline, like death and why her dad and I aren’t married. Though that was more inspired by me avoiding exposing certain topics to her. In this instance, she brought it up with me.

I have this memory of walking with my father from our house in Poughkeepsie — where we lived for a very short while when I was a toddler — to the playground, one we called Pooh Corner. We had to walk past a cemetery, and one day, I asked him what the gravestones were. He explained there were people under the stones, and that they were dead. And when I asked what dead was he said it was when you went to sleep and didn’t wake up. My mom says that I came home in hysterics. As a child, I would have night terrors, where in my mind death was a gaping black hole that you tumbled into; it was dark and lonely and you knew you were there, forever. This sort of thinking, which I now recognize was usually triggered by anxiety, continued well into my twenties. It didn’t shift until I started doing yoga. But that’s a lot of years of being absolutely terrified of death. Whether it is a direct result of that day with my father, or a by-product of my religionless upbringing, or something else entirely, who knows. But I wouldn’t wish that on my own kid, no how, no way.

So I said nothing. She wants to think we live forever, and that’s going to have to be okay for now. I thought about conceding that yes, our souls live forever, but figured that would just open up a whole other can of worms I’m not prepared to explain either. But when will I have to be prepared for these questions? Eventually, someone she knows and loves will pass, and then it will be unavoidable. Or some other kid will say something on the school bus, and she’ll come home with questions. I just don’t want her to be scared. Which is maybe asking too much — death is scary. Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, not knowing that this gorgeous, heart-wrenching journey we’re on has an expiration date is one of the joys of childhood we can’t really appreciate until we’re grown and realize that we know too much.

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Do we protect our children by preparing them with information, or by perpetuating the state of blissful ignorance they are born into for as long as possible?

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