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Heavy Meddle: How Do I Talk To My Young Son About Death?

A mother worries about how to discuss mortality with her 4-year-old. (Richard Ricciardi/flickr)
A mother worries about how to discuss mortality with her 4-year-old. (Richard Ricciardi/flickr)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

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Dear Steve,

When my 4-year-old son asks about death and dying, I do my best to answer without scaring him. His notion of death is a visual: the Wicked Witch of the West dissolving at the end of The Wizard of Oz, when water is thrown on her. When he hears that something (our family dog) or someone (from news on the radio) has died, he says, "Did she go down-down-down?" and motions with his hand the witch's descent. I usually just say yes, and that we miss her, and I leave it at that.

I should add that we are not raising our son with a religious affiliation. I found myself veering into talk of heaven the other day, which of course just prompted more very good and very hard to answer questions. I was raised Catholic, and I like the notion of heaven, but I'm not sure I believe in it. Then again, Santa Claus isn't real, and I haven't agonized over letting my son think he is.

But the hypothetical got real a week ago, when one of my son's close school mates lost her father very suddenly. It's a young family. He was a young man. It's a terrible tragedy. My son asked about his friend's loss in terms that worried me. "Why did her daddy go away? Is my daddy going away? When are you going away? Am I going to die, mommy?"

How much is the right amount to say to a toddler about death? I find myself struggling to say anything at all. I don't want inadvertently to instill undue worry and fear in my son. I also don't want to trivialize something as profound as death. Where's the balance for one so young — but so dogged with his questions?

Yours,
Tongue Tied with a Toddler

PHOTO

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Dear Tongue Tied,

Your question brought to mind one of my favorite short stories of all time, “The School” by Donald Barthelme. The story begins with a long catalogue of animals and people who die during the course of a single school year. The body count just goes on and on, proceeding from class pets to parents to, eventually, a couple of classmates.

Here’s how the story ends:

One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said, I don’t know, I don’t know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—

I said, yes, maybe.

They said, we don’t like it.

I said, that’s sound.

They said, it’s a bloody shame!

I said, it is.

I quoted this story at length because it speaks — in a somewhat absurdist manner — to the basic crisis your letter raises: what do we tell our children about mortality?

And I think Barthelme gets it just right. He has a discussion with his young students. He doesn’t deny that death exists. He doesn’t avoid the subject. He does his best to answer their questions in simple language. And he lets them express their feelings.

That’s really the whole ballgame.

Because, in fact, the worst thing you can do when it comes to death (or any other painful subject) is to avoid the conversation, or to lie to your children.

When my own son asked if there was a heaven I told him that I didn’t know. Because I don’t.

Why? Because avoiding the conversation leaves children at the mercy of their own imaginations. It teaches them to bottle up their fears and anxieties rather than expressing them. And it doesn’t really solve the essential problem, which is mortality.

Try to remember that children — even ones as young as 4 — do have a basic understanding of death. They see dead animals and images of death on TV. They hear about death in fairy tales, and may even act out deaths in their imaginative play.

It’s true that young children might not understand that death is irreversible. But as the child psychologist Alan Wolfelt observes, “Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.”

The key is to pay attention to your child’s needs. If he needs questions answered, do your best to answer them honestly, and in simple language. If you don’t know the answer, admit that.

When my own son asked if there was a heaven I told him that I didn’t know. Because I don’t. When he asked if I believed in heaven, I told him I didn’t, but that I hoped I was wrong.

Above all, try to remember that kids are much more resilient than we realize. Yes, at some point, they have to face the cruel fact of death. But they are also hungry for meaning and beauty and joy.

Good luck,
Steve

Author's note: I’m so curious about other parents have handled these discussions! Would you parent readers do me a favor and share your advice, or even stories, in the comments below? Also, please feel free to send your own questions along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don’t have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your queries via email.


Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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