My sensitive and verbal just-turned-3 year old son dropped this one on me this morning.
His only direct experience with death thus far was when we put an elderly and sick cat down last fall. He was at school that morning, but had to come home early (a rare event) for being generally upset. He knew at the time that she'd been getting sicker, and that morning we very casually let him know that she just couldn't enjoy being in her sick body anymore, couldn't enjoy her favorite yummy snack, and had decided to die that day. When he came home, we let him check out the body, and then he and I played nearby but didn't really engage with my husband digging a grave and burying her. All was well.
Lately he's been referring to her often, saying he misses her, and often telling anyone who asks about animals that she died. There's little to no pathos in all this, just simple reporting. But the increased frequency is really noticeable this past week.
In the car today, he said - with pathos - that he was missing her. I asked what he missed, and he didn't know. So I asked, "Are you really missing her, or are you wondering about what happens when animals die?" Now, he's in a super leading-the-witness stage of life, so no surprise he said "I'm wondering what happens!" I reminded him of our stock answer, that when animals die they stop breathing and stop moving and that means they aren't alive anymore. That's when he asked if I would ever die.
I was so unprepared! I couldn't say anything for a moment, and then I said "I will never ever die as long as you need me."
I'm happy with this answer in that it gives him security (the next question was about garbage trucks) and only as much information as he can handle at this age, but lying is just not part of what we want to do as parents. And obviously, it's not actually up to me when I die. Husband suggests that the next time it comes up like that, we could say also that we would never choose to die the way the cat did, because we would never choose to be away from him. And that we would put the emphasis on never, rather than on choose, so as not to lead him into thoughts of unchosen death.
But, we'd love to know more about ways to handle this. We don't mind references to god or spirit, we have said that our cat's spirit is still with us which is part of why we smile when we remember her. But our sense is that introducing more abstract concepts won't really benefit this logical concrete-thinking boy. Oh, I just remembered that book, um, Dog Heaven. That's sort of along the lines of what might work with him, except, you know, "What's heaven?" (We are non-specific buddhist-leaning animist-inspired non-dogmatic blah blah blah.)
Any other recommendations for how to frame the conversations at this age, books, or other gentle introductions of information?