Thursday, September 11th, 2008
Discuss: Talking to Toddlers about Death
- Book review: The Dead Bird
- The how and why of reading obituaries to a toddler
- The disembodied head of Paul Newman lives on
After Thinga-reader Kathleen perused the reading-obituaries-to-a-toddler article posted earlier this week, she asked, “How did you explain death to your 4-year-old???” Her own situation didn’t fair so well.
I get the impression most families are not where my family is with regard to discussing death.
So, this is an open invitation for all Thinga-readers to post their experiences on the subject. What have you tried, and what was the reaction? Or if you’ve avoided the topic, what’s your plan?
To answer Kathleen’s question, I explained death to my daughter when she was 2-years-old. My daughter wanted to know about my brother and my wife’s mother whom she’s never met. She has seen their pictures. She has heard us talk about them. Where are they?
It caught us off-guard, but there was no changing the subject. No sugar coating.
Since then, she has never asked about the possibility of Mom and Dad (my wife and I) dying. I only have a guess as to why, but here it is.
We frequently discuss the people, organizations and rules in our community that help keep people safe and assist when there is trouble.
- When a fire truck, police car or ambulance whirrs by, we discuss where it might be going.
- When Mom tells Dad to slow the car down, we discuss road rules that exist to keep people safe.
- When we see a kitten’s photo in the newspaper, we discuss how the Humane Society finds homes for stray animals.
- When she visits the polling place with us, we explain voting is about the community deciding on rules and who will be our leaders.
- When we see helium balloons hanging outside as we drive past a food kitchen, we explain how churches and other organizations help feed people who have lost their jobs or homes.
- For Hurricane Katrina, we shielded her from the tragedy and scandal of 1,800+ dead, instead focusing only on stories about the helpers.
Our society has many mechanisms to keep people safe, and help people when bad things happen.
And, it’s Mom and Dad’s job to give her rules, take care of her and keep her safe.
When she does something wrong and gets hurt, we remind her that’s why Mom and Dad tell her not to do certain things. Maybe I got hurt doing the same thing as a child, and that’s why she should listen to me, not “because I said so,” but because “Mama and Papa know things.”
And when she wakes up in the middle of the night crying from a nightmare, Mom or Dad is at her bedside lickety-split. Why? Because we’re here to help and protect her. It’s not a philosophy. We actually tell her that.
She knows that Mom or Dad is always watching over her. If one of us leaves the house, the other parent is with her, or there is a babysitter. I’ve reinforced that fact with her several times. At school, we leave her with the teacher who takes care of her. And, if Mom and Dad die, we have arranged for close friends to take care of her. She knows the couple and she is friends with their two young children.
Death is viewed within the lens of everything else we have taught her about life and society:
There are rules and structure to our community and if you obey those rules, there are people and organizations to help you when you’re in trouble. Just as society has its police, firefighters and doctors, Mom and Dad exist to help her, not just when she’s in trouble, but all of the time. And if anything happens to us, we have planned for that too. It’s a safe and orderly world, at least at 4-years-old.
Just last Saturday, driving around a town-wide garage sale, we turned a corner and saw the side of a hill covered with gravestones. My wife told her that people were buried underneath each marker on the hill.
My daughter wasn’t scared. She was interested, with a touch of disbelief. “There are people under there?” And a discussion ensued about the various traditions people have surrounding burial and cremation.
So… I’d really like to know… Where is your family at on this topic? How old are your kid(s), what have you told them and how have they reacted?