“What does die mean?” My son Alec, who is soon turning four, has been asking about death quite a lot. Unexpectedly, he initiates conversations about his fear of dying. My two year old echoes him, yelling, “I don’t wanna die!” Nothing seems to trigger these interjections. During a recent bath, Alec declared, “When I die, you and Daddy and Rhys are gonna die too, so our family will stay together.” On another occasion, he asked if he would still have feet when he dies.
Since death is such a hot discussion topic in my household these days, I am prompted to share how we are handling it. As a person who is spiritual but not religious, it is of great importance to me to handle this subject with care. As a mother, I want to encourage in my sons a healthy and open approach to death. I don’t want to overdo it and feed a growing preoccupation, but at the same time I don’t want to play it down.
Our family had just finished dinner when Alec’s father launched into a mini-dissertation on the meaning of death. “Dad, I just don’t want to die!” My husband, who was born in Scotland, reached for this William Wallace quote: “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” He continued, “Here is how I see it, Alec. Because you know you are going to die one day, you do your very best in all that you do each day of your life.” He then explained that working hard and doing a good job in every endeavor defines one’s life and gives it meaning. I was thinking to myself, “This is pretty heavy for a preschooler. And I’m not sure that striving is the answer to the problem of impermanence.” I thought about busting out some lines from the Kansas song, Dust in the Wind. I refrained, not wanting to be left alone in the dining room.
When Alec first asked me what death is, I replied spontaneously, “Death means losing your body. When a person or animal dies, their body stops working. Dying means that you don’t have a body anymore.” He went on to inquire, “Will I die?” I told him that he would, and that everyone else will, too. Naturally, he asked, “Why?” I told him that is the way things work in our world. We come and go and we are always changing. And so it is. I was thankful when he fell asleep thereafter, giving me time to prepare for the next inquisition.
I have been told by psychologists and early childhood education experts that children go through phases where they think and talk a lot about death. Last year, when Alec’s class pet died, his teachers sent home an article providing tips for discussing death with preschoolers. Alec’s school director lent us a wonderful book, Lifetimes: The beautiful way to explain death to children. While I respect this input, it is essential for me to develop my own approach. I strongly believe that the way we think about death informs the way we live life.
It is possible to convey peace and confidence when discussing death with children. Our little ones can tell when we’re being honest and when we ourselves are comfortable. What we tell our kids about death is a reflection of our core beliefs. Our culture, our religion and our education present us with standard notions of death and what it means. Nonetheless, we’re not obligated to take all of that at face value. According to our own wisdom, we can bring authenticity and integrity to the discussion. Below are some foundational questions for articulating your beliefs about death. Based on your unique and truthful answers, find the approach that works best for your family.
- Do you believe that there is more to humans than a physical body? If not, then be honest about the finality of death. One comforting and truthful phrase in this situation could be, “What matters is that we are here now and I love you now.” A discussion of memories that survive in the minds of loved ones is also a possibility. If you do believe in a soul that lives on, this is the perfect time to open up about that belief to your child. We tell our children, “The love and the light in you will always be alive.”
- Do you have specific beliefs about an afterlife? If you do believe in a Heaven or Hell, think about how to frame these concepts for a small child. I remember a dream from early childhood about masked robbers celebrating in Heaven. This was how I made sense of what I heard in Sunday School. If you think your child is not ready to hear about Hell, dig deeper into the origins of your belief. Seek guidance from a clergy member. If it feels wrong to you to talk about something to your child, take a look at that. Don’t distrust your own feelings on the matter.
- What is your view of reincarnation? If your tradition or your personal convictions uphold reincarnation, this belief has a very rich history. There are beautiful examples of the natural cycle of life, death and renewal in nature as well as in religious texts. My son has hinted at reincarnation asking if he can live a new life someplace else after he dies. I have responded that I like that idea but I’m not sure how true it is. For me, honesty feels best. We are all growing together.
- Does death have implications for the way we live now? Are you a carpe diem sort of person, or does vanitas vanitatum better capture your philosophy? In my example above, my husband took a discussion about death as an opportunity to explain his work ethic to my son. According to your own values, does death move us to accomplish more, to give more of ourselves or to fully enjoy each moment? Your child will see you exemplify these values, but the words you say still have a big impact.