How do you explain death to a three-year-old?
I was getting M ready for bed, and he looked a little pensive. I asked him if anything was going on, and he said, totally serious, “I’m dead. You’re dead. We’re all dead.”
He has recently watched Star Wars (several times now) and has been playing games with guns and video games where the little guys “die.” So I guess I shouldn’t have been so caught off guard when he said what he did. But I totally was.
So I asked him what he meant. He told me again that he was dead. And I said, “What does dead mean?”
“That means I’m dead,” he said again (a reasonable explanation for many things in his mind).
“Should we talk about what it really means?” I asked. And he seemed to want to hear what I had to say, so we discussed the matter. I explained to him that dead means not alive. Which meant I kind of had to explain the concept of “alive,” too. After a little bit of rephrasing, he kind of started to get it. I told him that people generally live for a very long time before they die (not really wanting to get into a tangent on accidents, terminal illness, murder, etc. just yet). I told him that he wouldn’t have to be dead for a long long time.
A lot of times, when we talk about the future, he talks about how he’ll be able to do or not do something, “when I’m twenty.” I tried to tell him that being dead would likely happen for him long, long after twenty, so it’s not something he needs to worry about too much right now. He seemed hesitant to believe me. So I tried another approach.
I don’t want death to be something that supplies him with crippling anxiety over the next many years. I want to reveal it as a neutral fact of the world, even though it often makes us sad when we inevitably encounter it. So I told my sweet little boy that being dead means being with God. He has some concept of God, but I’m not sure what his picture looks like, since it seems so different to everyone.
I asked him if he remembered being with God before he was born. He told me that he did, though it might be just a vague feeling that there was something that came before. So I told him that being dead is like how it was being with God before you were born. I think that explanation clicked a little better for him, but he did start to “cry up” as our conversation came to a close.
I explained that dead is not usually a sad state for the person who dies, but often when someone dies, the people that love them are sad because they miss them and won’t be able to see or talk to them anymore the way they used to. I said it’s okay to be sad when we think about dying, but people also like to think about the good parts of life, too, which usually helps make them feel less sad. So he cried in my lap for a little bit, and then it was time for bed.
I honestly thought I had a couple more years before this stuff started coming up. I think I’m pretty comfortable talking about some of the other big topics I’m in for. I know why the sky is blue and where babies come from, and I feel I have the capacity to explain those concepts in age-appropriate terms. But death. Man. I’m not even sure exactly what I believe happens after we die. I’m not as scared of it, myself, as I used to be, which I suppose comes from getting older and reviving my faith. The part about going home to God is as close to truth as I can give him right now. Which I admit can sometimes be tough even for adults to fully comprehend and accept.
I’ll have to think more about this before he asks for a more detailed explanation. Until then, I guess we’ll figure it out as we go. Anyone else have any experience with talking to their young children about death? What do people who don’t include the God part say? Because M didn’t really take to the whole “going back to the earth” bit. I’d love to hear your stories about how you’ve answered the “tough questions” your kids have come up with.