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Conversations of Death… with a Three Year Old

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I heard a gasp come from the kitchen. Art and I have lived in the same house for many years, and if I know my husband, I know that gasp was because he had just seen a cockroach. The girls and I were in the bedroom, Goldie was asleep and Margo was juuuust about to fall asleep, her eyes were closed and she was starting to breath that sweet sleepy breathe she gets just before she falls fast asleep… but she heard the gasp in the other room too!

Margo: ‘What was that? Why did daddy make that noise?’

Me: (eyes rolling, she was almost asleep!), ‘Oh, I don’t know, it was just daddy making a noise.’

But she HAD to find out why he made that noise, she was completely wide awake and had to go out in the kitchen to find out why. So, Art told her that he had found a dead cockroach. Unknown to us at the time, we had been putting away the dishes earlier and the poor thing had somehow been crushed in-between some bowls in our cupboard. When Art went to grab a bowl for some late-night-snack of something, that’s when he found the dead cockroach.

For the past few weeks, Margo has been asking me all sorts of questions (as usual). But, some of the funny questions were like, ‘Does such and such (like a chicken) poo‘… well… I would tell her, ‘All things that are alive poo‘… then she would ask, ‘What does ‘alive’ mean‘. Then, I would tell her the criteria for all things living: moving, breathing, eating, excreting, etc. Similarly, a few times, if I thought she was going to accidentally kill a bug, I would tell her to be careful because we don’t want the bug to die. The subsequent questions were ‘What does die mean?’. So, I would say, ‘Well, dying is when something doesn’t move or breathe anymore‘. I wasn’t quite sure if she really got it… she only just turned three… so I tried to keep it as simple as possible and avoided all the adult stuff like how you have to find a Probate Attorney in San Jose or somewhere similar when someone dies. She can deal with that when I die!

Anyway, back to the cockroach story. Margo came back to bed after asking daddy about the crushed cockroach and she started asking me more about dying. She was very sleepy and for some reason, this time, really understanding what I was saying about dying. She got very upset and nearly started to cry saying, ‘I don’t want to die! It makes me really scared!’.

Woah!’, I thought! I remember being really scared thinking of dying or thinking of the infinity of outer space when I was about 8 or 9 years old lying in bed trying to fall asleep… but not at age 3! So, I didn’t say anything more, I just told her that dying is not something scary, it’s something that will happen, but not for a long long long time when she gets very old (I know that’s not always true, but I could clearly see that she was in distress).

Fast forward two nights to tonight, and we’re having a conversation while she’s on the pot…. (If I could record all of these conversations we have while she’s been on the toilet, I would have hours and hours of entertainment when I get old and gray). The other night’s topic of conversation was birth… so just to come full circle, the topic tonight was death. Keep in mind, I’ve never talked to hear about people dying, just the occasional reference to no stepping on ants or bugs, or asking about why some people eat animals (we’re vegetarian).

She was nowhere near as upset as she was the other night (and not as sleepy). So, she started yapping away:

Margo: ‘Why do we die?’

Me: ‘Well, it just happens, sometimes our body gets sick, or we get very very old, or accidents happen‘.

Margo: ‘Will all people die? (and she started naming people she knows), and then we’ll get to see everyone again?’

Me: ‘Yes, eventually, we’ll all go, and we’ll all get to meet again’. (woah, I’m thinking)

Margo: ‘I don’t want to die, it’s scary!’.

Me: ‘Why is it scary to you?’

Margo: ‘Because I will go under the sea.’ (What the…?!). Will we keep dying and dying and dying? And then will we keep being born and born and born, again and again and again?’

WOAH!!! Hang on a second chicky! I know that not everyone who is reading this believes in re-birth or reincarnation, but what’s up with that? I’ve certainly never mentioned the idea of reincarnation to her! Where did she get this from?! She then continued:

Margo: ‘I don’t want to die, it’s scary‘.

Me: ‘Why is it scary?’.

Margo: ‘Because then I will be under the sandbut then, will I be in your tummy again, and I will be born? I don’t like being born, I don’t want to be born again.’

WOAH again! Where did she get this from?! I certainly have not talked about this stuff with her. Anyway, I sort of ended the conversation… she was finished on the loo anyway.

It just boggles my mind, the way kids think and come up with stuff that they have never even heard about! So, it got me to wondering… how do you talk about death with your children? Whether it be the death of the innocent squashed ant, or death of a dear loved one… I just wonder how people speak about it to help the children understand… Like me, I’m sure there are many of us who never expected to think about this with children who are at this age. I don’t think I started questioning this until I had actually experienced a close death. But this is something they need to learn about. To help them prepare if nothing else. I still remember the first funeral that I ever went to. It was lovely, and you could tell that a lot of thought and planning had gone into it. It was only when I get older did I realize that the person who passed had inquired about Final Expense Life Insurance (you may be interested in this insurance policy here) that meant that all of their funeral expenses will be taken care of so their families don’t have this pressure. It was a great idea, but maybe this idea is too complex to explain to a child just now.

The idea of death, however, is something that they are never too young to learn about. I just need to think of how to do it. I mean, do the children understand already? I’m sure that religion plays a huge role when talking about the afterlife, so obviously, depending on one’s culture or religion, there will be different ways of talking about it. Are there ways of talking about it without making it seem scary? In Margo’s mind, she is almost more scared of being born than of dying!

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