I knew they would find out sooner or later, so I decided not to waste any time.
“Girls,” I called quietly and sat down with them on the kitchen steps. “I have some sad news.” They exchanged glances, almost smiling in that way kids do when they know they’re about to hear something that requires a certain somber response. A foreshadowing of juvenile schadenfreude. Or like adults who laugh at funerals. I told them our neighbor’s dog—a dog they often helped take care of and feed when its owners were out of town—had died yesterday.
They maintained that strange mask of sadness, that contorted expression kids wear when they are conscious something “sad” is happening and they feel self-conscious about their response. My four-year-old has no experience with death yet. I had to remind her several times that she wouldn’t see the dog anymore, that she wouldn’t go over to feed him again. I felt compelled to drive home the point: death is permanent. He wasn’t coming back.
Her cry was sort of fake and forced, although I knew she was genuinely sad. But she wasn’t overcome by grief.
She asked casually as we ascended the steps to get an afternoon snack, “Do people die too?”
“Yes, honey,” I replied gently. “Everybody dies eventually.” Of course she knew people died, we’d mentioned it in passing before.
And then she asked. The question I’ll never forget.
“Am I going to die?”
I couldn’t lie. I knew that no matter what, I couldn’t lie. So I took a deep breath. “Yes, Sophie. Everybody dies. But you’re not going to die for a long long time,” I whispered. A lie. I did lie. I had to lie. You have to lie, right?
And then the sobbing began. Deep, wracking sobs that shook her whole tiny body. And I couldn’t stop myself; I cried along with her.
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” I soothed, holding her tightly against my body. “You’re going to live a long time, I promise. You’ll live a long life, you’ll live to be an old lady. You’re not going to die for a long time.” I knocked on wood furiously and quietly as I spoke, over and over, a talisman against jinxing our family with tragic and ironic loss.
“We won’t be able to eat anymore?” she bawled. “Or go to school?”
I was speechless. And I knew that I would remember this moment forever, the moment when I unknowingly opened the door to something larger than I expected.
“You will, honey, you will!” I reassured frantically. “You’re not going to die soon, you don’t need to be sad! You don’t need to be scared!”
“I don’t want to die before my next birthday,” my inconsolable child, my baby, wailed.
“You won’t,” I said firmly, “You’ll live to be old. Older than Mommy, older than Grammy, as old as Grandma Myrtle!”
I kept knocking on wood, every few sentences. I couldn’t stop myself. “Our bodies may die, but I believe that what’s inside our hearts, our souls, our spirits, they live forever,” I told her, tapping my heart. “And that means that we’ll always be together in that way.”
She placed her hands over her heart, mirroring my gesture. “I want to die right by you!” she declared ferociously, and I squeezed her tighter as we wept together.
How do you tell your child not to fear death when you’re not sure what you believe yourself? Our family is not religious, but I do believe something. I didn’t lie when I told her that I believe our souls go on after we leave our bodies behind. She had more questions that I couldn’t answer: “Will we ever see our house again? Will we be alive again?”
What do I tell her? I could talk about reincarnation and infinite energy and human interconnectedness. I could talk about heaven or past lives or ghosts but the truth is I don’t know exactly what I believe. So I told her the only thing I do believe: We don’t need to be afraid of dying. Part of us will live forever. We’ll always be together.
I lied to her, though. I am all too aware of that fact, paralyzed by my fearful superstition, worrying that my empty promise of long life will come back to haunt us in the cruelest of ways, wanting to believe that no, it was compassionate what I told her.
She cried and cried, as if she had been given the worst news ever. Which, really, she had. She’d been told the deepest secret about Life: that it ends. She learned that one day she would die. That she wouldn’t eat, or go to school (sob), or see her home again.
I’m sorry that this isn’t an article full of books you should read to your child, or things to say, or what not to say. I didn’t know what to say. I was caught off guard. I didn’t know she would mourn this truth the way she did. Sometimes you don’t know how to talk to a preschooler about death, you just do it. You share their pain. You answer the questions you can. You tell them there’s so much we don’t know. You cry with them.
Beautiful post Stephanie, and I’m sorry you had to do that. And I’m sorry to tell you it doesn’t get easier when they get older. Hunter and Audrey were12& 8 when my brother died. Explaining it, and answering the questions, and dealing with the grief and fear while dealing with my own hurt so much. And I lied too. They wanted to know if I was going to die (because I’m the last woman standing in the McGrath family:)), and I looked them right in the eye and promised that I would not. What else could I do?
On a lighter note – The Today show, as I was typing this, said it’s snowing in Denver! Yikes…
That image of you crying together got me teary. We talk about death a lot, it seems. Two major people deaths in two years, and it’s on my kids’ (my son’s especially) minds. I stick to the philosophy of answering the question but going no further. So neither has asked if I or they will die yet, but we have talked about how all living things die eventually. I don’t look forward to when they put all the pieces together.
Such a hard part of parenting, especially when we don’t have all the answers ourselves. You did the best you could and your answers were heartfelt and honest. What more can you do?
Thank you for sharing such a touching and heart-wrenching post. I often wonder about these inevitable conversations as my boys get older. While I have no experience yet, I would venture to say that being caught a little off guard by your daughter’s questions and fears — as opposed to preparing for them by reading books about what to say, etc. — probably led to such honest (“lies” excluded because of course you have to do that), genuine and raw responses and emotions from you which is great modeling for your daughters that death is sad and difficult and emotional and it’s okay to feel all of that.
Hi Stephanie (‘cuz),
I was really drawn into this article as I have of many that you’ve written. You’re a very gifted/talented writer and know how to express your thoughts and feelings very well. This article struck a chord in me because my faith is very important to me. I’m not fearful of death and actually in a weird sense look forward to the day I will meet my Savior. If you would ever want to discuss this please let me know. You’re a fantastic mom and I enjoy reading your articles! Keep going!
It’s a difficult conversation that needs to be had over and over. I honor you for being willing to let your children in on the truth. We are all mortal. None of us knows what happens next and that can be scary.
Accepting that, in my experience, leads to living a more authentic life.
I flagged this when I saw it to come back and comment because we just had a similar conversation in our home. Tucker asked why some people die before they are 100 and bawled because he had a huge nose-bleed and thought that all of the blood had left his body and that he was dead. Good for science and that the body has more blood than we think but bad for “Where is Chief, Really?” and “I Want To Wait For You” and “Why Will You Die First?” and and and… xoxo
Beautiful post. One of our beloved pet cats died last summer and it was unexpected. I had no idea what to tell my daughter, but I did find a copy of Fred Rogers’ (of Mr. Rogers fame, no less) When a Pet Dies. It was so helpful to read together. It’s not a religious book, but still very moving. Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Best Thing about Barney is also good.
Explaining to my daughter that we all begin as stardust and all will eventually go back to the earth, plants, etc, and back to stardust seemed to comfort her. Circle of life, as it were.
So honest and beautifully raw.