How Do You Talk About Death With a Three Year Old?
Today my big girl asked me some heavy questions.
She always knows how to keep me on my toes. She challenges me, this one does. She likes to think and figure things out. She asks lots of questions.
Today her questions were about death. Gulp.
We've had some discussion about death before. One of our dogs died last June and we talked about it then. My husband's grandmother passed away this past June, and we talked about it more.
Today for some reason she got really curious about death and asked some very difficult questions for a mother of a three year old to answer.
Questions like, "Mama, are you gonna die some day?"
My heart broke a little bit as I made a split second decision to be honest instead of glossing over or not really answering her question (she doesn't fall for it when I do that anyway). So I answered her calmly (as my heart was pounding and my brain was silently screaming at me, "Don't screw this up!"), "Yes, Honey, someday. Everyone dies someday, and that's okay. It's just part of life."
And then her little lip started to quiver. Tears formed in her eyes. I started to feel panicky. How could I answer her questions so she wouldn't be fearful? How could I be honest and yet let her know that she didn't have to worry about death? How did I get into this conversation?
Her next question was like a sledgehammer to my chest. With shaky voice, "But Mama, if you die, who will be my mommy?"
I tried to explain very calmly that I would always be her mommy and that hopefully I would not die for a very, very long time, and that she didn't need to worry about me dying.
She was still worried. The next question?
"Mama, am I gonna die some day?"
Oh no. Well, I was going for honesty. So I told her that yes she would, someday. But not for a long, long time. She was upset and said that if she died she would be sad to not be able to play with her toys. I don't know how I managed to keep from dissolving into tears at this point, but I didn't.
Through all of this, I was so worried that I was screwing it all up and that she was going to have nightmares and be fearful from now on that everyone around her was going to die any moment. She asked me if her Grandma would die, and our remaining dog (who is quite ill), and my Grandpa (who is 94 and on her mind because we just sent him a care package).
I think she was trying to figure out people's level of oldness with all these questions. See, to this point we have discussed death as something that happens when people or pets get very old. When our dog died, she was very old but she also had cancer. I didn't want Miss to be worried every time she got sick, so I explained that our dog died because she was old. Same for my husband's grandmother, who was 92 when she passed away. I'm not ready to get into the subjects of sicknesses and accidents that can cause death before old age. I don't think she's ready for that either. So today I stuck with death happens when you're old.
Not completely honest, but enough for a three year old on a topic like this.
Honestly, I don't know if I handled this conversation correctly. I tried to answer her matter-of-factly and give lots of hugs and tell her she does not need to worry about dying right now. During the entire conversation I was trying to change the diaper of a squirmy baby and navigate errant dance moves and ninja kicks from Lass, so I might not have been as focused and eloquent as I would have liked to be for a conversation of this magnitude.
But I think it turned out okay. After asking lots of questions, my precious, spunky, oldest daughter abruptly picked up on something her sister was pretending regarding being Rapunzel and did an about-face to start pretending to be Mother Gothel (I was Flynn Rider). I was a bit shocked and had a brief urge to ask, "Is that it? Are we done with all that death talk for now? You're not scarred for life or anything, right?"
Instead I jumped into character and began playing Flynn Rider with gusto. My girl seems fine. Phew.