Yesterday while at the dinner table, my 4.5 year old asked: “So, which one of us is going to die first? I think daddy will because he’s the oldest.”
This is not the first time the topic of death has come up in our house but that didn’t make it any easier for me as I suppressed a feeling of dread and fear in my belly and took a long swig of water before responding.
I said “We hope that we will all live a very long time and chances are, we will.”. It was the best I could think of on the spot.
Before I had children I was able to respond very matter of factly, in ways I had been instructed to: be calm, reassure the child that mommy or daddy will be here for a very long time and that he has nothing to worry about.
That was a nice theoretical approach, but the reality is that he knows his brother was buried as a newborn (my firstborn son was born still after 9 months of pregnancy). He knows that death isn’t reserved for older people. He also knows about earthquakes and fires and accidents that have happened recently that have left people of all ages, well, dead.
That simple reassuring answer I had been trained to give just didn’t seem to cut it for me.
In fact, I knew that he and his friends have been talking about death at school in recent weeks and months and one conversation has been around what people look like when they’re dead.
Are you feeling uncomfortable yet?
Being 4 and a half, he is at an age where he has quite a few fears and anxieties about mundane and warranted things. He’s also at a developmental age where he is processing things on a much deeper level than ever before. It is starting to occur to him that his perspective and experience of the world may not be the only (and most valid) one. In psychological terms, this is a move away from being egocentric.
Death is something that makes many in mainstream US culture very uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons. But it’s not the only topic that kids can become fascinated and even obsessed with that leaves grown ups squirming in our seats and loudly asking for the bowl of brown rice to be passed over STAT. Our inner voices are screaming “Anything to get the kid to stop talking about death/body parts and processes/skin color etc!!”
Well despite our own discomfort there are a few things we should try to remember:
*A young child’s brain and therefore grasp of a complicated concepts is very very different than an adults. They don’t have all the background knowledge and experience and emotions all connected to the topic. For the child, it’s usually about wonder and curiousity first and foremost. So try your best to answer-in simple terms- focusing on the question that is being asked and not more.
*A simple “What do you think?” can shift the direction of the conversation and give you time to collect your thoughts if that’s what you need. It also can help you have a clearer sense of what your child actually does and doesn’t know.
*Look for high quality children’s books that relate to the topic. Ask your local librarian for recommendations if you don’t know where to begin. Be sure to read the book fully before you read it to your child, and feel free to amend the words to your own comfort level and that of your child’s interest.
Good luck on this parenting journey. One thing for sure is no matter what your background, life experience and approach to parenting, at some point in our parenting journeys, we all will get to shriek inwardly at explore the wonderful and complex moments of growth and learning with our children.