Explaining death is more difficult and traumatic for parents than it is for a 4 year old to understand.
Death is never an easy subject to broach, but there were protocols when I was a kid. We had a narrative to fall back on growing up Catholic, and my brother and I were into our middle school years before attending a funeral for anyone we could remember. We were much older when someone really close to us died. By then, I had a firm grasp on the concept of death and what I believed happened afterward.
Now with my own family, religion doesn’t play a role in our narrative on death (not an indictment against religious families, just a choice), so there’s little possibility of us venturing down that avenue of explanation. Death, however, is inevitable and doesn't always wait for the right time or the right explanation.
At the tender age of two, our kid began asking the right questions to which we felt honest answers were owed. It didn't happen all at one but gradually over time – in bits and pieces – each time you could see and hear her working her head around it. Rosemarie Truglio, a developmental psychologist and the senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, said in an interview with NPR, "Kids process death in bits and pieces, over time.Don't sit them down once, overwhelm them with information and expect them to internalize it all."
Life offers a multitude of teachable moments, which often start with their questions...
The first significant conversation we had with our daughter about death came when we were waiting for a train – she was around 2.5 years old. It was random and mundane, a chance to have a utilitarian discussion on urban safety. We live in a city so knowing how to properly cross the street or wait on a train platform is pertinent survival information for young learners.
“Baby, if you fall down there, you’re going to get smooshed by the train. You’ll be gone forever. Mommy and daddy will be very, very sad.”
There was, of course, more to the conversation but that was the gist. The next several minutes were spent reiterating the gist from different angles. We boiled it down to "death = you never wake up" – gone forever. Everyone will be sad. Short and blunt, just the facts. It wasn’t the right or wrong way to explain death’s finality, it just was.
The end result was no smooshed toddler. Lesson learned.
Did it leave a lot to be desired? Sure. But you’re not going to get it all in the first time around with toddler. More teachable moments would be required. In that same NPR interview, Truglio tells about a hospice social worker "who specialized in talking with children about death once" likening the process to the way a children eat apples:
"They take a bite, maybe two bites, then put it down," Truglio says. "That's probably how they're going to experience death as well. They're gonna take a couple of bites. They're gonna go on with their lives. And then they're gonna come back, and they're gonna take a couple more bites."
As the months flew by and her mind expanded, our conversations on death evolved. Until one day insects gained the notice of my growing and curious child.
“I smashed that ant, daddy. Is it dead?”
“Yes,” I said shaking my head, “that fucker is dead.”
“Did you say an adult word?”
“Yes, I did.”
It wasn’t the first insect she’d killed, nor would it be the last, but it had been premeditated. She’d watched it moving around, doing ant stuff, then summarily snuffed out its life.
I was disappointed by her premeditated insecticide, especially because we’d discussed not killing insects, but this was a learning opportunity — a chance to teach some empathy. I upped my parenting with an after school special-like moral lesson.
“You know, that ant is never going back to it’s home. Its friends will wonder where it is and why it never brought food back for the colony. That ant is gone forever.”
She stood there staring down at the ground, twisting back and forth – possibly reflecting on my words. Was it sinking in? Had this casual act of murder turned into a genuine teachable moment? I could almost see the gears turning on in her head.
Parenting journals and blogs would perhaps quote my simple but ingenious reply. I mentally patted myself on the back.
“But mommy smooshed a spider in the apartment…”
I was wrong. She thought she was in trouble.
“How’s it different, daddy?”
“Spiders are good insects until they come inside. Then they’re bad, but not really bad. People fear…”
“Spiders are good?”
“… Yes, they eat bad insects.”
“Eww! They eat them? Why are there bad insects?”
“Because they’re annoying. But ants aren’t. Nevermind. Don’t kill ants.”
“Because they’ll be dead and their friends will be sad and they’ll never go home?” She finished with a big, self-satisfied smile.
Close enough, kiddo.
Leaps of understanding come after a foundation of small practiced steps
Flash forward a year later. We were back in hometown my wife and I grew up in for my grandmother’s funeral. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say everyone was devastated – my grandmother was the gravitational force in the center of our family's galaxy and she had a special relationship with everyone, including my 4 year. Her great grandmother was her “Great."
We discussed what to do with our daughter during the wake and funeral – it was open casket – but decided it was best for her to “handle what she could.” Preparing ourselves for the candid kiddo questions and commentary that did come, we gave her the basics with the option to change her mind at any time.
I’d wondered how this moment would go, hoping it wouldn’t happen till she was older, but there we were. Had we prepared her? Could you adequately prepare a 4 year old for death? Will people understand if she lost it or said something toddlerish? Could I handle it?
Let me emphasize that I'm not making a commentary on any parent who decides a different way. An older cousin of mine, whose daughter was close in age to mine, had called me and asked what we were going to do and I told him. He and his wife opted their kids out. I didn't blame him . With kids that age, it's safer that way. Who knows what a toddler will do and say at any given moment. Mine kept walking up the casket and smiling after happily declaring that grandma was, indeed, dead.
Yet when it was time to go, she knelt down at the casket and spoke to her Great in a loud clear voice, “From my heart to your heart, good bye Great.”
I didn’t hear the whole thing – my mom and several of her siblings did. Instead of crying or trying to poke my grandmother awake, the magnanimous toddler said something candid, sweet, and possibly profound. It was a heartwarming moment that brought tears of joy to my mom's eyes.
Ah, they do say the darndest things.
More importantly, though, her first real encounter with death was normal. She sensed our sadness and offered affection but wasn't traumatized by the experience. Maybe we’d done something right and being honest with her had helped. Maybe explaining death is far more difficult and traumatic for parents to do, than it is for a 4 year old to understand.
Did she learn a valuable lesson about death from smashing ants as a 2–3 year old? Yes, but it took time – gradual steps, like a toddler eating an apple. It started with her learning that getting smushed by the metro is the end, but that in life each living thing deserves compassion and consideration, which is something her “Great” instilled in all of us.