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?
Mom of one child (2008), wife of one husband, tender of dogs, cats and chickens. Household interests: ocean life (kid), bitcoins (husband), simplifying (me).
I think every family's answer to this is different, based on experiences, temperament, religion, etc.
I personally would not have answered they way you did, but my dd's experience with death at age 3 was a bit different. She is very aware of animals dying--we raise chickens for meat and she's watched them get slaughtered. She's seen the remains after a predator attack. She's seen the dead animals our cat gets. She knows 3 of my grandparents have died in the past year and a half. She seems to know that all living things will die. She knows that the people we've known that have died have been old. She knows that we bury dead bodies--first she knew that we buried dead chickens, and has even helped. She knows that my grandparents were buried. I tell her that all living things return to the earth when they are done living. In our country lifestyle, death is a clear part of life. We are not religious at all. Well, maybe some sort of Buddhist/Pagan/Atheist mix, but definitely not Christian in any way.
Wow. How nut. We put a sick diabetic cat down when dd was very early 3. She is 4.5 right now and still talks about the cat at least a few times a week. I think that for a long time she told everyone as soon as she met them (including cashiers, pizza delievery etc) that her cat was dead. I think at that age it is such a BIG thing and they talk about it constantly to help themselves to come to term with it.
I am not sure what to say about asking about you dying or other people but whenever dd talks about her old cat we tellfunny stories about him and talk about how nice he was what colors he was etc. I think it helps her reconnect and feel secure in knowing that even if the animal is dead we have our memories and that its 100% ok to talk about those memories.
we've talked about death because last spring i lost my brother. dd was 4 at the time. we discussed how he was sick and then i said something along these lines:
"Usually people live a very long time and then after they have grown up and had children and lived a long long time and are very old, that is when they usually die. sometimes people are sick and they are so sick that they die even if they are young. someday, yes i will die, but i think i will be very old and you will be a big grown up with your own children and your own house. death is a part of life, just like birth. your uncle was very sick and that illness caused him to die. but i am not sick and i won't be dying anytime soon. and you are not sick and you will not die soon. no one else that you love is sick and will die soon."
then i talked about how when you die, it is only your body that dies, that your spirit is still with us. that it goes somewhere else - to the light of the universe to join the energy of all living things, but it is also with us and that if she ever wanted to talk to her uncle she could just talk to him because no matter where she is he can hear her. This is what we believe spiritually, but i imagine here is where you could add your own spiritual beliefs.
i think it is important to be honest with kids. she understood and we returned to this discussion many times over the months since his death. i do think it is important to reassure them that no one else will die, but i also think that if death is treated honestly and openly it doesn't have to be a scary thing. and i think a three year old can get it.
Of course that led to another problem....every time we are in a public place and he sees someone who appears very very old or ill in some way (even just sneezing!) he asks me loudly, "Mommy, is that person going to die now?"
Very blessed mama to one bouncin' boy (12/07) one who didn't get to stay (6/09), one potty learning, mess making diva(4/10), and one cheerful milk monster. (12/11) Happy partner to the love of my life.
My 5 yo dd asks a lot about this. Very concerned about when I will die and when she will die. (I remember being terrified of this at age 6 when I realized my own mortality!).
I told her everything dies and that I hoped to live 100 years. But then she threw out the ol "Will YOU die before ME??" To which I answered, "Probably, but we'll probably both be old ladies by then!"
This seemed to satisfy her!
You might like the book Lifetimes. It just says that everything has a lifetime and says how long many of them are. That sounds lame - it's good. It's honest but makes death more matter-of-fact, so it isn't some giant THING.
Nana upstairs, Nana downstairs might suit you as well. It has death and missing and love in it, but it is very simple and friendly too.
As far as how to answer a 3yo - well, my kids (5 and 3) would both be pretty upset if I lied to them. They'd remember. I think it depends a little on how your kid is how much of an issue this would be. With mine, if they surprised me and I answered like that, I'd probably go with reading some books about death and life and talk about it more to bring things back to a totally honest and open approach.
It is hard. I know that I find it hard to answer that sort of thing when I really don't want them scared but I also won't lie. I do find that the way I drone on and on about an answer to something like that tends to be somewhat satisfying to them. And I tend to ask them questions about what they think too - that is a good standard reply to any question you are caught off guard by - "What do you think?" followed by me trying to listen to their answer and formulate my own at the same time.
I think that there's good advice from the pp's.
We've talked about death quite a bit here, there have been a few unexpected deaths of family (dh's dad) and friends in our older dd's first few years. I've talked about it with referenced to plants/seasons. There's a book by paul goble (beyond the ridge) that I personally liked quite a bit - I've talked about how people believe different things about death, and that even though things/people die there are always new things that come into the world. I usually try to frame our discussions that way (that it's just a normal thing that happens in life).
About myself or dh personally, since dd has asked the same question, we've told her that usually people don't die unexpectedly. Usually someone lives a very long time and/or develops problems with their health that lead to their death first (which has been the case for people we've known) and that I think has helped reassure her about it. We've also talked about all the things one may do to remember their loved ones who've died (leaving flowers, keeping pictures or other special objects of theirs, just remembering things that happened with them) and how that is a really nice thing to spend time doing for them and ourselves when we miss them.
"yes one day i am going to die too but i hope it wont be for a very very long time because i want to see you grow up and <add something silly here>"
that's what i said.
few things. this is age appropriate. some start early, some start older.
you cannot save them from pain. something about death is going to hurt them. dont underestimate their age appropriate answer. help them deal with the pain rather than try to prevent pain.
in my experience i have found the more info when younger was easier on my dd.
at 3 it was a mixture of knowledge and sadness. 'mama i dont want gpa to die'. 'i know honey, i dont want him to either. it will be hard when he we cant see him but he will always remain in our hearts. and sometimes we can invite him to dinner.' <my dad and bro died before dd was born, so often i invite them to join us for dinner and tell my dd stories about them. my intention is two fold. to make sure my dd 'knows' them and for me to deal with my grief without hiding it from dd. i have held a crying child and empathised with her over her, my, her gpas and others death. it is a process they have to go thru and i didnt try to shelter her from it.
rituals. rituals. rituals. always very very helpful. you create it. even today we have lots of rituals we created. some are respectful, formal kinda rituals, some are funny ones.
the key is however answering his question without suggesting any info yourself. that has been the easiest way of handling death and sex for us. i used to freak out because i realised i thought about more things than dd's simple question.
i did not find books really helpful.
however i was honest and open with dd. which is why at 3 i answered how exactly we die (i was freaked out because she asked me that right as we were about to board the plane for an 18 hour flight), and at 4 all the rituals of what different cultures do with the body (totally shocked an eavesdropper esp. with the tibetian way). by 5 dd knew about my funeral and memorial service wishes. its because she was not locked into the emotional then but more on facts. that conversation now at 8 would be a v. painful one for her coz now she focuses on the finality of death. earlier it was more curiosity than emotional. she now associates death with pain rather than a curiosity.
ETA: one of the first things i did when the question of my death came up was to ask her who she wanted to stay with after i died. and we went and spoke to hte person (my best friend) which resulted in my 3 year old one day saying after a great playdate 'mama i cant wait for F to be my mommy after you die'. oh what a HUGE relief it was knowing she wasnt worrying about herself if i died.
I could not lie about this with my dc. The fact is, anyone could die at any time. I could not make a promise that I knew was beyond my control to keep.
Generally, I answered that all living things die eventually, but that I was healthy and women in my family live very long lives (my grandmothers were in their 90s when they died). I said that I would never want to leave them and this is why I made sure that we all ate properly and exercised and tried to be careful and avoid accidents. We also discussed beliefs about after death. This seemed to reassure them, but they are not the kind of kids that worry obsessively about things.
One other thing occurs to me - I use the words "dying' and "death" rather than euphemisms like "he passed" (which always sounds to me like saying someone farted). I think the fact that I acknowledge that death is a normal part of life is helpful and removes some of the fear of the unknown for them.
Another thing that helped our son when he was worried about us dying was to explain to him the plans that we've made to make sure he was taken care of. I used a lot of the lines that people here have used "Yes, I will probably die before you, but I'm planning on living a long and healthy life because I want to see you grow up and get to know your kids." We'd then talk about what we were doing to make sure we were healthy.
Ds processed this slowly over a couple of years. The first question came at 3. By 4 1/2, he finally asked "What would happen to us if you and daddy died?" I explained to him that they would go live with Aunt and Uncle J, and that we have made sure that Aunt and Uncle J. will have enough money to take care of them. "How will we get there?" (they live 1500 miles away) "Your aunt M who lives closer will come get you and go with you." "But what will we do until she gets here?" "Well, most likely one of your friends' parents will stay with you until she can get here." "What if they can't?" "Well, then the police will stay with you until someone can get here." "What if I have to go to the bathroom?" "They have bathrooms you can use at the police station." "Oh, OK." Apparently, that was the thing that reassured him most -- no matter what happened, he'd not have to hold it until his aunt arrived!
It was a rough month or 2 for DD when she really caught on about this--a little after turning 3. For a while there she would sob and sob for long stretches talking about how she didn't want me to die or her to die. When she asked about me I told her that all living things die, and that will include me. Over the weeks that she was really dealing with this one worry came out stronger than the others---she worried that it would be dark when she died and that she'd be all alone in the dark. We've got an odd set of beliefs in our house and haven't talked much with her about spirituality or religion in regards to what we think but more about what many different people think and I was able to tell her that many people think that when you die that you see the most lovely light that you've ever seen and that some people think that when you die that those who have died before you come to visit and help you in the light. She asked if I thought that and I answered honestly that I have no idea but I certainly like that possibility.
We covered death when i miscarried most recently (my 4th loss, but the first DD had been aware of). She was 3.5. We could have hidden it from her but she'd seen the pregnancy test and knew what it meant, then i was pretty sick from bloodloss and had to have DP come home from work and she was imagining all kinds of terrible things, so we just told her.
She was really curious, and asked all the questions. She knows my mother died before she was born, and she knows the baby died before it got born, so "only when i'm old" wasn't going to cut it. I settled on "yes honey, everyone dies eventually". Perhaps it was how i delivered this message, or perhaps it's her temperament, but she seems to have taken it calmly.
She asked later "will you die soon?" and i said "i'm going to try my really really hardest not to die until i'm an old lady" and she said "but what if you can't help it even if you try?" and i said "well then i'll have to die".
She still asks about my mother and tells people about her baby "sho-sho" (what she was calling the baby we lost) and how "he couldn't grow properly so he died and was a miscarriage instead". I'm glad she remembers.
Hey everyone - OP here.
I can't believe that it took me til now, but just this second I snapped to why this was so hard for me. Uugh. Embarrassing but true - I actually forgot til now that, ahem, I myself was almost 3 when my infant brother died. So of course, I have a 3 year old's experience of a totally devastated family, and the magnitude of immediate death, as well as mother's wish to save her child that suffering. But also of course, that is (thank god) not the situation here, and I have a separate commitment to share all of life honestly with my sweet son.
I have really appreciated all your words of wisdom and bravery and examples of your children touching in with death and thriving regardless.
Since I posted originally, it's come up again a few times, for example tonight, and I was able to breath easily and come right back with something more honest:
(joyfully, or at least manically) "Mama I don't need you anymore!"
(calmly) "Well, that's fine, but I'm still not going to die right now. People mostly die after they are very very very old and their children are very very very old too."
(defiantly) "It's not time for pjs, it's time for trains!"
I'm also tuning in to the way our lives thus far have been blessedly free from death and other painful realms, as well as the reality of self-harvested food, so it just hasn't been present for him. I'm making a mental note to start some visiting at an advanced care facility, and to our local farms on harvesting days. I will consider more deeply how my desire to protect him may be limiting his exposure to an aspect of life that he really craves contact with.
One last thing - this is my first time posting here instead of toddler-land. I have been totally unprepared for the way my 35 month old was still a toddler, and the way my 36 month old leapt so suddenly out of babyhood. I suspect I will be scrambling to catch up from here on out, forever more!
Really - thank you all!
Mom of one child (2008), wife of one husband, tender of dogs, cats and chickens. Household interests: ocean life (kid), bitcoins (husband), simplifying (me).
I would say (and have said): "Yes, I will die, but it won't be for a long, long, long time." I remember my mom saying that, and it was bittersweet (that she would one day die) but reassured me at a young age that she was going to be around for the relevant future.
It's similar to what you said... but I myself wasn't keen on the part "until you don't need me." I think it (unintentionally) equates your living with his needing you, and equates your death with his not needing you.
I know you wanted to reassure him that he would have you as long as he needed you, but it also could create a kind of frightening, burdensome causality in his mind between his need states and your very existence. YWIM?
I am so sorry about your losing your little brother ... how sad. :( We had a young baby die in my family before I was born and it really was hard ...