In the past year several people close to us have died. We have a three-year-old son who has started to ask us if we are going to die and whether he is going to die. We have tried to avoid burdening him with the problems of adult life, and we have no idea how to reassure him without getting into explanations that seem far too much for a preschooler to understand. What should we tell him at this age?
I hear concerns such as yours from parents quite often. Parents often have a difficult time talking to their young children about death but it can be especially hard when they are dealing with their own feelings of loss. It’s not easy for adults to help children understand what is hard for everyone to experience. Perhaps it’s because parents are older now, or perhaps because parents today are connected to many groups people though work, community, and school, it is common for families of young children to know someone who has died. If parents were not taught very much themselves about death as they were growing up (often because well-intentioned adults were attempting to shelter them from sadness) it is even harder for them to know what to say to their own children.
It's helpful to children if parents talk to them about life cycles and death before they lose someone who is very dear to them. Sometimes parents don't mention that an adult friend or a distant cousin has died because the child doesn't know them. However, when a child is not already feeling sad, talking about these deaths can actually it easier for a child to ask questions or think about "what if . . .?" Talking to a child about death at these times can be seen as a way of "immunizing" a child against the inevitable pain of the death someone he loves later on. By answering your child's questions now, you set the stage for helping him in the future.
When you do talk to your child, here are some ideas for what to say. First of all you have to explain to him, in a preschooler's language, what it means to be dead.
When someone dies, they are not alive anymore. They don't come to visit. You can't visit them. They aren't awake or asleep. They don't get hungry or thirsty or cold or hot
(Although it may be hard for you, use the words death, dead and dying. Children become confused and even frightened when adults use misleading euphemisms such as lost, gone, sleep, put to sleep, or passing away. Young children are very literal.)
People usually die because they are very, very, sick or very, very old. A cough or a cold is not very sick. Some people are old but they live a long time until they are very, very old. Sometimes people die after a very bad accident. That can happen to anybody, but it doesn’t happen very often.
(Children can make associations between being sick and dying that are inaccurate. Even when someone is seriously ill, they usually do not die. Someone can have an illness that is not curable, but they may live for many years. People do die, but it is hard to predict when or why it will happen.)
When someone dies you may feel sad when you think about them. It's O.K. to feel sad and cry. It's nice to think about someone you care about, even if it makes you sad. Sometimes you will think about them and feel happy when you remember the good times you had together.
(You can include your spiritual beliefs in your discussion about memories and the soul or spirit of the person who dies. It’s also helpful if you give your child other ways of remembering, such as drawing a picture, recording a memory, or planting a tree may be more helpful. If you don't have any spiritual beliefs, it's probably better to avoid mentioning concepts such as God or Heaven that you may not feel comfortable supporting. If other family members have different ideas than you do, it's a good idea to reflect on how you plan to explain to your child the differences in people's beliefs.)
Even if your child did know the person who died, it’s hard to know how he will act. Parents sometimes worry when a young child doesn't seem bothered by the death of someone he has cared about. But most young children do not understand that death is permanent and irreversible. They may not feel a sense of loss of someone they don't see regularly anyway. A child may only begin to understand the permanence of death after he wants to see the person and can't. Even children who feel sad about a loved one dying may not act sad for long. Children are able to compartmentalize their emotions and can be sad one moment and playing happily another. This is normal behavior.
Questions about whether parents are going to die are quite common with young children, even those who have never known someone who has died. Most young children worry at times that a parent will die. Their real question is "If something happens to you, who will take care of me?" Children need to be reassured that someone will always be there to care for them. If your child asks you, "Are you going to die?', you can say, "Everyone dies someday, but I am planning to be around to take care of you as long as you need me." If you are matter-of-fact, your child will be reassured by your tone as well as your words. If your child asks if he is going to die, you can tell him, again very matter-of-factly, that it is very, very unlikely that he is going to die for a long, long time. Detailed discussions beyond this point are often not very valuable.
(Some young children have seen animated movies about children (or animals, or fish) whose parents die and are left to take care of themselves. These movies are more appropriate for school-age children, and can be very frightening for younger children. Young children may enjoy the funny and happy parts of the movies, but themes of death and loss can lead to fears and nightmares and worries about their own safety.)
Parents should be aware that young children may make cause and effect connections between events that are not necessarily connected. For example, they may believe that because their aunt died in the hospital it means that if someone goes to the hospital he will die. A young child may believe that an action or thought on his part caused a death. A child who refused to kiss his grandfather may feel that if he hadn't acted that way Grandpa wouldn't have died. It’s a good idea for parents to tell children, "Sometimes children believe that when someone dies it might be because of something they said or did or even thought. But that isn't true.” A child who harbors the mistaken belief that he or she caused someone's death is usually ashamed to admit it, but the belief lingers on and can cause more grief for the child than the original loss.
Parents are usually the best people to help a young child learn about life and death. That can be hard if parents are feeling overwhelmed by their own sadness. In those situations, the parents themselves must get support for their own grief and it is important for close friends or family members to be available to a child.