Discussing Death with a Preschooler

All these thoughts have been floating in my head as I’ve also been stirring around the idea of doing more to teach my kids about God. My lack of trying is due partly to not knowing how to approach it, which in all honesty is really due to my lack of effort toward thinking about how to approach it. I’m a Christian, and my faith is very important to me. I want my kids to know God, but I don’t want them to think of Him in the same way as an imaginary friend, like Pinky, or as a cartoon character who they hear stories about and think none of it ever really happened.

Not knowing what to say, or how to say it, has also prohibited it from becoming a routine. It used to be easy when it was just Ella. We would regularly sit down in a circle as a family before bedtime, sing some songs, read a Bible story and pray together, but now with two kids, one of which is rambunctious and doesn’t sit still well (more excuses, I feel pathetic) has made that nighttime routine fall by the wayside. I desperately want to start it up again. Maybe I will. I know I need to start this now if I want it to become a regular part of the rhythm of our home.

But even more pressing is knowing how to discuss death with my preschooler. This past weekend our kids’ great grandma died. The viewing is Tuesday night and the funeral is Wednesday. We have had to wrestle with whether or not to take them to the funeral, how to explain it, and how it will affect them for the rest of their life. It’s the first “talk” of many serious issues I will have to have with my kids, I suppose. And I’m probably stressing out about it more than I should. Death, after all, is just another part of life. Perhaps if I treat it as not such a scary thing, then they will not be scarred forever by our conversation! I might take the easy road however and just pass this opportunity up, waiting until they are older to really make them more aware of things. Pax is only two, and Ella is four, too young I think to really be worried about dying. Ella has the personality that when she learns something new, she is almost fixated on it for weeks (right now it’s punctuation, and already she has noticed almost every time punctuation is used in her books.)

So I did what any good parent does.  I searched the internet.  I actually came across something that was very helpful from the National Institute of Health called, yep, “Talking to Children about Death” which had a few very powerful statements:

1. Children are already aware of death – whether it was seeing a dead animal or hearing about it on cartoons or video games, it’s not really something new

2. Not talking about something doesn’t mean you aren’t communicating – this is so true about so many issues in life.  What’s not said is just as powerful as what is said.  By avoiding it, that sends the message that this is really bad…

3. They will sense I’m hiding something – kids are more observant that we give them credit for, and after reading this article I realized that it would be really weird for Ella to see all these people crying and me not explaining it.

4. It’s okay to talk about – I totally value honesty and want my kids to feel like they can tell me anything.  I guess it starts with me being able to talk to them about stuff, too.

5. Ask them what they know about it, and help clear up misunderstandings – I thought this was a good way to approach it, since I’m not really sure what my kids really think about it.

6. Give brief and simple explanations, but don’t give euphemisms – Again, being honest is best.  Telling a little kid that someone went to sleep or went away could really scare them, and I’m glad I read this before talking to my kids about it, because I probably would have fallen into that trap.

Armed with that information, we circled up for family devotions tonight, sang some songs, read a story and then I showed them a picture of great grandma (I didn’t want them to get confused about who I was talking about) and asked them if they knew what it meant to die.  Ella immediately related it to Mario, who dies, and so I had to tell them that Great Grandma died and we are going to go to a funeral and they will see a lot of people who are sad because she died.  I asked if they had any questions, and Ella had a bunch of stories about Mario, and I just tried to explain that Mario is for pretend but that this isn’t for pretend.  I also told her that most people live a very long time before they die, which seemed to give her a little relief.  I just kept smiling and asking if she had any other questions, finally she just wanted to play with some toys, so I guess she had moved on.  Before we could play, I told them we were going to end family devotions with prayer and asked if there was anything they wanted to pray about.  Pax said, “Grandma and great grandma” which was the sweetest thing ever.

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