Quick! Someone Sing The Circle of Life– My Kid’s Asking About Death

Image credit: blogonair.org

Image credit: blogonair.org

For the life of me, I can’t remember when I first contemplated death.  When my grandfather died when I was in third grade, I remember crying and feeling sad for weeks.  By then, I understood something of the permanence of death.  I was eight, and I was a fairly morbid and sensitive kid, who, in her spare time prayed for the stigmata just like St. Teresa of Avila. 

My daughter, at half that age, has started asking questions about death and from her questions, it seems like she sees it everywhere.

It started when our nanny Sandra came to work one morning with a blotchy face and a runny nose.  In front of my daughter, I asked her if she was OK.  Her face crumpled in grief and she explained that her beloved uncle had died and that she wouldn’t be able to make it home for the funeral.  I comforted her and asked her a few questions after offering to give her the day off to mourn her loss.  Before my conversation with her was over, I felt my daughter tugging at my shirt.  “What are you talking about, Mommy? Where is the uncle now?”

I took a deep breath and stared at Sandra.  We both realized that we had to offer an explanation because my daughter had heard too much.  Sandra offered, “My uncle had a bad boo boo, and I won’t be able to see him for a while.”  Unfortunately, my daughter wasn’t accepting that because she’s got a finely tuned BS detector.  She looked at me as if to say, “Come on. What’s really going on here?”

Naturally, I stalled, stammered and evaded.  I sing a few bars of that song from The Lion King about the circle of life, but all that came out was a something closer to Goodbye, Norma Jean.

That whole conversation sparked something in my daughter.  Now, when we listen to her favorite CD and the song Found A Peanut comes on, she asks me why the singer died from eating a rotten peanut.  Then she asks me where bugs go when she smashes them with her foot.  She wants to know if she will die someday too.  

I’ve had to ban NPR in her presence because the last thing she needs to hear is about death tolls from forest fires, Syrian rebels or gun violence right in our own city. I’ve curtailed any flip sayings like “I’d rather die than pick up the mess in this house,” or “I’d kill for a Dove bar right now.”  It’s not appropriate now, and it probably never was.

People have recommended age-appropriate books about death to read with my kids.  I am only mildly consoled that lots of kids start asking these questions at her age.  But I still hate it.  I hate that I have to look into her eyes and tell her that death is a long goodbye.  I prefer to deny both the fact that she’s asking about it and the fact that the answers she seeks are pretty grim.

It’s in these moments when parenting wrenches my heart the most.  She deserves clear answers from me, and it’s my job to give them to her no matter how hard it is for me to talk about it.  Parenting means talking with my kids about all parts of life, not just the simple joyful ones that are easy to talk about.  Parenting also means keeping it simple, direct, and honest.  Even when it comes to death.



43 thoughts on “Quick! Someone Sing The Circle of Life– My Kid’s Asking About Death

  1. this is SO tough. i mean, even for adults, it’s a hard topic. when my Oma was dying, i had a real hard time with life in general and it carried through in my parenting. 😦 finally i had to tell Lovie that Oma was very very sick and that’s why i wasn’t so happy. when she finally passed away… ugh. i just had to tell her. i had to be honest. that was almost 4 months ago. just this past weekend she brought up Oma and how she is “died” and how she was “in the box sleeping” in the room (funeral home). sadly, death IS a part of life.

  2. Ooof. I so dread the day this conversation comes up with my own kiddo. I went into a total anxiety spiral upon learning about death, and I’m not sure I ever fully got out of it. I completely feel your pain. This parenting thing? It ain’t for the weak.

  3. There is so much reality and goodness in this piece, I know. But for some reason, I am distracted by the fact that Found A Peanut is now running through my head, and not a little disturbed that I remember every single word, even though I haven’t heard it in at least 20 years.

  4. It is a really tough thing to talk to kids about. Good luck. “Simple, direct, and honest” is a good approach. I personally don’t think we do kids any favors when we shield them from the realities of death. Not that we need to go into morbid detail, but the basic facts, they can handle.
    We went through this about a year and a half ago when Maggie’s grandma died. Bill had talked with some excellent hospice staff at the hospital who gave him some guidance on what to tell her. We explained that Grandma R. had died, which meant her body had stopped working and we could not see her any more. We explained that it was sad when someone dies, because people love and miss the person who died. Ever since then, Maggie keeps bringing it up in really matter-of-fact ways. When she’s playing, I’ll hear her making up a story, narrating something like, “Sasha had a brother, but he died. So now she plays with Lucy. They play with animals…” It’s a little startling to hear. But she doesn’t seem worried about death (though I know that may change one day). Rather, she seems to accept it as something that just happens.

    • I think incorporation into play is such an adaptive thing. I means they are processing the information and trying to understand their world. It’s possibly I myself am a little morbid as I reflect on my upcoming birthday. Milestones, they getcha.

  5. Yick. My 4yo knows something about death, but he hasn’t extrapolated the questions like Sadie has. He told me his plant was dead and that nana killed a bug, but so far he’s not really asking what it all means. It seems he has a vague idea of what it means to him and I’m content to let that be — at least for now. That sounds so hard.

  6. Ugh, death is a favorite topic among my kids. I use the “honest as much as a 5/6 year old can comprehend” approach. The only problem is that now they say things like “I can’t wait to go to Heaven” and “Mom, when I die, I will be able to see you, but you can’t see me”. It breaks my heart to have these conversations with them, but I hope they harbor a healthy appreciation for life and death. I try not to put too much weight on people dying because they got sick or old, because I don’t want them to worry that someone will die every time they get sick or that it means you die when you get old. In their minds 20 is old……..

    I tell them that no one knows when they will die, but that it is part of life. We have mourned many a goldfish, a random hermit crab and our beloved cat. They know that death is permanent, but no one of the human variety close to them has passed away, so we have yet to see how they handle that.

    This is a tough one, but I dread this much less than the sex and period talks that are looming…….

  7. Oh. Yes. SO hard. Everett talks about death a lot, and I’ve written on it too (http://itsdilovely.com/2012/09/13/talking-death-preschooler/) because it just keeps coming up – two people and one cat that he has known – and one particular person he never got to know – have died in the last two years. I agree that simple honesty is best, but how do you achieve that when you don’t even KNOW what happens? When NONE OF US can possibly know? When anyone he might talk to would probably tell him something different? Sigh.

    • That’s the thing, right? I don’t know where we go or what it looks like. Believe me, I want to know (I think) if for no other reason than to be able to talk with confidence and not be so scared myself. Hence, I need to call upon some faith.

      On Wed, Jul 17, 2013 at 10:38 AM, Outlaw Mama

    • You aren’t kidding. I am going to get myself cozy with heaven and its properties so I can relax and speak authoritatively.

      On Wed, Jul 17, 2013 at 11:02 AM, Outlaw Mama

  8. Since my dad died when I wad only 14, death has always been a part of life for me. And since I really would like Gabi to know about her biological grandpa, I have alwsys told her about her granddpa in heaven (albeit through glassy eyes and sometimes tears!) She knows my Uncl Herk is in heaven because he died when she was 18 months. I thinking talking about heaven makes it normal. Now I haven’t

    gotten the tough questions like how/why etc.
    Or the questions of what is heaven like or howlong is eternity. I am still grappling with those myself!!! I like age appropriate honesty but its hard when the answers are tough!!!

  9. There’s a great book out there called Proof of Heaven by Dr. Eben Alexander…. check it out. I gave me a lot of hope regarding afterlife.

  10. You won’t regret it! I always believed in heaven, but this book just magnified the beauty of it. From the neurological viewpoint and the Dr’s personal experience, it gave me a whole new way to look/think about at heaven…

  11. What would have helped me is believing there is something after. Not sure I do. But I can remember at that age being awake all night worried about the the world going on and on without me and feeling so empty and so small. I’m still afraid.

  12. Part of the difficulty of this conversation for me is that I’m not really sure if I know what I believe happens after we die. I mean, that’s the part that’s supposed to comfort our kids when we have the talk with them, right? We tell them about heaven or reincarnation or whatever? I’d better get some soul searching in because I need to be prepared!

  13. Death is a hard topic but hopefully if you’re honest and upfront, our kids won’t have anxiety about it. Its not good to have anxiety about anything.Though impossible to avoid 100%, its good to be able to talk about death. It helps our emotional well-being and teaches us to talk about feelings.

    • I totally agree. When my daughter Maggie’s grandma (my mother-in-law) died, I tried hard to answer all of Maggie’s questions in as calm and matter-of-fact a way as I could. If it had been my own mother who died, it would have been much harder for me to talk about it with my kids. I know it was harder on my husband, so he tended to deflect questions to me. Oh, and the questions went on for months. Not constantly, but out of the blue she’d ask some question about Grandma R. and whether we could visit her, and I’d have to explain all over again.

  14. My uncle died a long slow death from lung cancer which was horrible for everyone. My five year old was there for the process (not the actual death, mind you) and I think because he saw it, he was okay with it. My other son was six months old and we have always talked about Uncle Joe, so he just goes with it. I think you just need to let the child lead the conversation and give them “age-appropriate” feedback, then let it drop. This is a true case of knowing when to say when. Good luck with that.

    • I love the idea of letting the child lead. Saves me from having to sit her down and say, “So, um, death…”

      On Thu, Jul 18, 2013 at 12:42 PM, Outlaw Mama

  15. I love the last comment. Your kids are so young, so letting them lead makes sense. I honestly have no idea what I’d say. Heaven? Reincarnation? You’re gone and that’s it? I do imagine if you feel peaceful during the conversation, it can be conveyed that it’s part of nature and the cycle of things….blah blah…

  16. Oh boy, death is a really hard one. Both of my girls learned about it much sooner than I would have preferred, and it was interesting to watch how they both processed it so differently. I do think you let her ask you questions and just simply answer what she asks. As time goes on you will be able to expand your answers.-Ashley

  17. Such a tough one. Nathan was 3 1/2 when my mother died and then at almost 6 the dog we’d had his whole life died, so there have been a lot of questions. He had become fascinated with cemeteries, funerals, and just death in general. It’s hard to explain that kind of stuff while grieving. For us, honesty worked to an extent. For example, when he asked what happened to my mother’s body, I told him that the hospital takes care of that and we got an urn to remember her. I didn’t explain she was incinerated and now sits on my mantle. That seemed too gruesome and the answer sufficed. I am still fielding questions, I don’t think it ever stops. It’s way beyond their grasp. I end every conversation by asking him if he has anymore questions, telling him he can always ask when he has one, and that even though it’s confusing, sad, and a bit scary, it’s not something I want him to worry about. Then I hope he won’t ask again for a long time and I hope that he won’t catch me in a moment where the question makes me cry.

  18. One of my earliest childhood memories is going to a funeral. I was three, maybe four. I even remember the dress I wore. I remember being confused and scared. What made it worse was no one explaining what was really happening. All I remember being told was that the man was going to be placed into a big hole in the ground. Seriously?!?! I think it’s one of the reasons I over explain everything to my kids. I get a lot of eye rolls at my house. It’s important to be honest, but at the same time you have to remember your audience and keep it age appropriate. Good luck!

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