All life ends in death. But because our culture has difficulty accepting this fact, death has become an unspeakable terror. Death lurks in the shadows of our lives, ready to claim, at a moment's notice, someone we love.
Perhaps due to our own fears, speaking to preschoolers about death is an even greater taboo today than talking about sex. Adults try to justify their reticence by arguing that because young children can't possibly understand death, parents should spare their preschoolers the burden of thinking about it.
But this excuse for avoiding an unpleasant subject consigns young children to the darkness. If you don't discuss death at all with your child, she will be totally unprepared if someone close to her does die. Will you force your preschooler to deal with her grief and fears alone? Or will you help bear some of her burden by looking for answers together?
What Happens When Someone Dies?
Before a tragedy forces you and your preschooler to confront the specter of death together, try to bring it up in a neutral way. The opportunities to speak about death with your preschooler are endless, because death is literally all around us. Any of the following situations can provide you with the opening you need to bring up the subject of death in a nonthreatening, nonpersonal way:
- Your child notices a squashed squirrel in the middle of the road.
- One of your house plants slowly withers and dies.
- Leaves fall from the trees in autumn.
- Mufasa, the Lion King, gets trampled under a stampede of wildebeests while his son Simba watches helplessly.
- Your child delights in grinding an ant under his shoe.
- A family pet dies or is "put to sleep."
- A relative (one who was never close to your child) succumbs to a long illness or dies in a sudden accident.
Any of these scenarios can lead to a discussion that will allow you to explore your child's thoughts and feelings about death and to share your own thoughts with him. Indeed, your child will probably wonder about all of these events whether you talk to him about them or not. So take advantage of the opportunity they present.
If possible, focus your first discussion about death on one of these neutral scenarios. Try to steer this initial conversation away from acknowledging that eventually you, your child, or someone else he loves will die. Unless he has a context in which to fit this knowledge, it will damage your child's sense of safety and security.
Hopefully, you will have discussed death several times with your preschooler before he asks such painful personal questions as, "Will I die? Or will you die?" Of course, if your four-year-old does ask these questions, respond as honestly and reassuringly as possible.
You might want to tell your child, for instance, that most parents today live long after their children have grown and have their own children. Make it real for your child. If your parents (or better yet, your grandparents) are still alive, point to them as examples. Let your child know that you someday hope to enjoy your grandchildren just as your parents enjoy him. (Of course, if your child then responds with, "When will I have children?", you'll be right back into a discussion of sex again.)
Pointing to your own parents as examples of long lives may lead your child to ask, "Is Grandma going to die soon?" If this comes up, be honest. Unless your mother has a terminal illness, you can reasonably and truthfully say something like, "I don't know. Most people today live until they're 75 or 80 years old, but some people live as long as 100 years or even more."
Unless your discussion of death follows in the wake of a personal tragedy, the way you talk to your child about death should be similar to the way you talk about sex. Pay attention to avoiding the use of euphemisms for death, which can create misunderstandings and powerful fears among preschoolers. If you say that someone who died has "passed away," "passed on," or "gone to a better place," your child may think, "Oh, a better place. When's he coming back?" If you describe death as like "going to sleep and never waking up," your child will never want to go to sleep again. And if you describe it as "going away and never coming back," your child will never let you go on a trip without making a huge scene.
Preschoolers—perhaps influenced by adult euphemisms—most often associate death with going to sleep or taking a trip. Of course, this means that they consider it a temporary condition. They do not understand the permanence of death. They may want to know when a person who died will wake up or come back. If your child has this misconception, correct it as gently but as persistently as you can.
Most importantly, in all of your conversations with your child about death and dying, try to instill a reverence for life and an appreciation for the beauty of life along with an understanding of death. Try to place death in the context of the continuous cycle of change: the endless circle of life, death, and rebirth.