The Scene: My three-year old daughter and I are at Grandma H’s viewing where I racked up parenting fail #315, because I did not want to talk about death with my kid.
The Kid: Who is that? (She asks after spotting the casket at the front of the room in which a coiffed and suited Grandma H resides.)
Mama: That’s Grandma H.
The Kid: Is she old?
Nailed it, right? Ok, not so much. I would like to say that my daughter and I had a deep conversation about death and dying after Grandma H’s viewing…that I was able to talk to my daughter in an age-appropriate and snappy way. It was fall after all, a seemingly good time to talk about dying, given the decay around. I could hear myself now, “Grandma was like a leaf…”
But, I let the moment pass. The month before Grandma’s funeral, I fast-forwarded through the part in the Lion King when Mufasa dies. How do you explain that to a three-year-old? My apparent inability to discuss death with my kid is not that unusual. In Western culture (and in my white, Protestant, middle-class background), most of us do not have explicit conversations about death and dying1. I did not talk to my daughter because I am afraid of saying the wrong thing and of having to explain that I am mortal, too. I wish I had been as quick as a friend who, after she asked him about dying, took his daughter to a graveyard to explain that he would die someday and turn into the dirt she loved to play in.
My friend had the right approach to the inevitable questions children have about death that are triggered by news and other kids’ conversations and comments. (Have you heard pre-school playground talk? It is full of death and dying.) Interviews with children suggest that these conversations should be like small talk and everyday conversation.2 For example, research by Maureen Keeley and her colleagues highlights the importance of the daily conversations and routine interactions we have with one another. Everyday communication about school, sports, hobbies, daily activities and shared experiences is important, as are innocuous, common, and routine behaviors, because everyday talk and behavior provides children a sense of normalcy, love, and comfort. So perhaps the inevitable conversations the Kid and I had recently while playing were what we needed. These talks represent small brush strokes in our everyday conversations that will paint death as part of the picture.
The Kid ran into the house this summer with a roly-poly she captured in our jungle of a backyard. We found a mason jar for the bug, and she put some grass in it for food and comfort. Who knows what caused the demise of the creature, but when it inevitably stopped moving, she told me that she would place the jar in the sun, explaining, “Then she will move again.” I said, “Dying doesn’t work that way. But you can paint a picture of her to remember.” After some back and forth talk about the finality of death, that despite the beneficial properties of the sun, the warmth and light would not create life from death, that the roly-poly was going to decompose and turn into dirt, the Kid moved on to the swing-set.
And then on a walk with the dog, we talked about the smashed squirrel carcass on the street. In a matter-of-fact way, we observed how the pavement drank the squirrel’s fluids, the carcass smashed into two dimensions, intestines squirting out its flat mouth. Next came the questions from the Kid’s mouth: “Will the squirrel be alive tomorrow? Why is there a dead squirrel on Maple Street?” We talked about accidents. We talked about death as final. The Kid repeated her questions, and then we continued our walk around our block, looking for other dead animals. We collected old cicada shells for her art projects, though I said no to the squished toad.
Ultimately, I found it was easier to answer my daughter’s questions than it was to dodge them. She has seen Mufasa die in the Lion King. She stomps on spiders to prove they are mortal. Giving her my best straightforward answers did not traumatize her; rather, they let her know that death is a natural and inevitable part of life and that we can talk about it. And even make art about it.
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1Keeley, M. P., & Yingling, J. M. (2007). Final conversations: Helping the living and the dying talk to each other. Acton, MA: VanderWyk & Burnham.
2Keeley, M. & Baldwin, P. (2012). Final conversations, phase 2: Children and every day communication. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 17, 376-387. doi:10.1080/15325024.2011.650127
Dr. Sandra Faulkner – Science of Relationships articles
Sandra’s teaching and research interests include qualitative methodology, communication and identities, and the relationships between culture, identities, and sexual talk in close relationships. She has published work in a variety of academic and literary journals and is most pleased with her work at the intersection of social science/poetry.