“Quick! Hide the fish bowl!” exclaimed the mother of four year-old Sammy who had noticed that Goldie was floating on the top. “The kids can’t see that she has d-i-e-d. That would be so terrible.” So it went in a preschool classroom in the school I was directing.
In thinking that it is better to shield young children from sensitive issues and sadness, many parents inadvertently miss the opportunity to teach their child about some of life’s most profound experiences, including death. I realize that this sounds funny, death as one of life’s experiences. But for young children, it is the truth. It is the living who need to learn about death and to live with it. Children need to learn that death is a part of the natural cycle of life.
Death is one of those really hard questions. Philosophers, thinkers, and people of the clergy spend all their days trying to understand it, along with the spirit, the soul, and heaven. Just imagine how hard it is for a child to get a handle on death. But not talking about death certainly won’t help your child in his quest to learn about this life lesson.
A child, even a young child, can be touched by death at any time – when Goldie dies, when Grandpa dies, or when there is news of a death overheard. The one thing we can say for sure is that it will happen. In fact, death is perhaps the one inevitability of life. Everything that is alive will one day die.
An inevitable reality for parents is that almost all children, usually around the age of four, will begin asking some “big” questions. “Where do babies come from?” “What is God?” and likely, “What does it mean to be dead? As the child’s cognition develops, so does his curiosity, especially around the age of four. And this is a good thing. Learning is good!
Most young children have no real framework for death. It’s not a word or a concept that has meaning for them. It certainly isn’t the “loaded” topic for them that it is for adults. They don’t have the life experience of an adult and consequently don’t associate the magnitude or the sadness of death. In order to create a mental framework in which to grow an understanding of death, young children must have concrete experiences with it. I am not talking about field trips to the cemetery. I am talking about age appropriate and simple exposure to death starting at a very early age, earlier than four years old.
When you are walking with your two year old on a crisp fall morning, point out the leaves that have died and are falling off the trees. Use the real words, “died” and “dead.” The crunchy crispy ones on the ground are dead. When the first blush of spring brings roses a plenty, notice the full blossoms that are dying and soon will fall off the bush. It’s the end of the life cycle of the rose. First it was a bud, then a full blossom, and then it died and fell off the plant. Heavy rainfalls usually leave the sidewalk sprinkled with worms that are dead, no more wiggling. Notice that worm, “Look at that worm; he is dead.” Instead of sweeping away the dead fly or moth on your windowsill, show it to your child, and explain that the moth is dead; he is no longer living. In so doing, the child will begin to form the framework in his brain called “dead.” Into it will go the leaves, the roses, the moths, and the flies. It is these real, concrete experiences that pave the pathway to the child’s learning about death.
While a dead spider might illicit an “Eeeeeewwwww” from you, and you find a dead bird on the grass abhorrent, your child does not. It’s just something else to be learned. Take pains not to season your child’s learning about death with your own flavoring. Remember, death is not yet a loaded topic for your child.
And at some point around the age of four, with or without your prompt, most children will ask you what death means. It is as if a light bulb has gone off and death takes on new meaning. It is important that you give simple and factual information. “Dead means that something that was once alive is all done living.” That is the long and short of it.
Depending upon the age and development of your child you can add: “The body has stopped working and won’t work anymore. The body won’t do any of the things it used to do: it won’t talk, it won’t walk, it won’t move or see or hear. None of the parts work anymore. The person won’t eat or drink or go to the bathroom.”
In explaining what it means to be dead, it is important that you avoid any associations with sleep. You can imagine what will happen to the bedtime routine of the child who (incorrectly) connects death and sleep. I am sure no one wants to disrupt that process! Nor should death be explained with an association to sickness, “Uncle Richard got very very sick and died.” To the child, sick means having a cold or a tummy ache, not death. And you don’t want each sneeze to be accompanied by a fearful, “Am I going to die?”
As the child learns about death, he also comes to know that death is about separation, the ultimate separation. Now that’s a really scary idea-- not having your mommy or your daddy any more. So the next likely question from your child will be some form of “Are you (and/or Daddy) going to die? Am I going to die?” This where you become an expert actor, as you convince and assure your child that you and your child are going to be together for a long long long LONG time, explaining all the things you will be doing together for years and years to come; you are not going to die for a long long LONG time.
Children learn in bits and pieces, so it is important that you are patient as your child asks questions, even the same question, over and over. It is his way of trying to wrap is arms around what you have told him.
Death is not an uncommon visitor into children’s creations and in their dramatic play, as they are working so hard to understand it. Four and five year olds do a lot of shooting, and falling down dead, and hopping right back up to act out the next scenario. Play is how children learn.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Questions about death are followed by questions about what happens to a dead person, about bodies and souls and spirits, about burials and funerals. And, if I am not mistaken, you, the parent, have just as many questions about how to answer these, knowing the impact your answers will have. In my book, Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents these topics and more are explored in detail.
But now is the time to give careful thought to your beliefs and your answers. It is in these that you are your child’s first and most important teacher about death and about life.