How do you talk about death with your 3-year-old?

When my daughter was one, we visited the resting place in Canada of her grandmother – my mother Janni Moss (above). She was too young to remember it or to fully understand what was happening, but it was an important day for me. My mother’s passing was the most significant turning point in my life. I was fifteen when she was sick, and sixteen when she passed away from complications from a bone marrow transplant to treat her cancer. The experience of that loss, and being witness to her fight for life when she was just forty-three, shaped me in many ways. I’ve missed my mother in multiple ways and in multiple moments since her passing, but I feel that I have never missed her more than when I had a daughter of my own and shared that new connection with her own life experiences. Showing my mother’s memorial to my own daughter for the first time was meaningful and I won’t soon forget that day.

About a year and a half later, in August last year, my dog Bogart passed away peacefully at home in his sleep. He was seventeen. That teary morning we buried him in the yard, sharing stories about Bo and our years together. He was a little fella, a white Maltese-Shitzu cross, and he used to stand his ground next to me and cough when he was jealous. He loved cuddles, and he hated traveling in the car so much that he’d hide under the seat. Bo had seen me through many highs and lows, many moves and life changes. He’d spent countless days and nights resting in the crook of my elbow while I wrote my novels. He was as good and loyal a canine companion as anyone could hope for. I’d been lucky to have him.

When Bo died my daughter was two and a half, older and more aware, and she spoke a lot about Bo after his death, sometimes in ways that were challenging. She asked me why Bo had died. She wondered why Bo was in the ground and if he would come back. She wondered if our other dogs would die and also go into the ground. As parents, my husband and I decided that we would not lie to her. We told her that Bo had been very old (roughly one hundred in human years), and that every creature dies, but that our other dogs, who were a lot younger, would not die for a long time yet. And we told her that when pets like Bo pass away, some part of them stays in our hearts.

Then she asked me, ‘Is Bo dead, like your mum is dead?’

It was hard to hear her make the connection, but I had to tell her that yes, my mother had died and now Bo had died.

In September this year a close friend of ours passed away unexpectedly. Martin Harrison had been instrumental in my husband’s life, as a poet, teacher, lecturer and friend. He had been there for many milestones. In recent years he had spent a lot of time at our house, chatting with us through long evenings over bottles of wine. We saw him only days before he died, and I remember every word of the conversation I had with him as if it was carved into me somehow. His optimism and spark had not diminished. Martin’s passing was a great loss to many, and our daughter saw the grief in us, and again, she had a lot of questions about death, particularly at the funeral and afterwards. We had made the decision that we would be as honest as possible about life and death with her, but now she was three and a half, more aware and more articulate, and the other question naturally came:

‘Mummy, will you die?’

I don’t want to lie to my girl. I can’t tell her we will never die, that I will never die. I could not do that. None of us lives forever. But I don’t want her to be unnecessarily distressed either. Kids read about death in fairy tales and books, and hear about death at home, at school, on TV. But that doesn’t mean the conversation is an easy one.

How do you talk to a three year old about death, without lying? 

Every parent or friend of a child has a different way of dealing with difficult questions about life and death, but one of my friends, Richard James Allen, had particularly good advice that I found helpful: ‘You can tell her that you’ll be there for her for as long as she needs you,’ he suggested.

I thought about that. It was both reassuring and real. It felt true. It felt like something my mother could have said.

My mum battled against cancer for her daughters, and for her husband, and for herself, but the truth is she had already given us so much, and everything she had already given us, taught us, shown us, lives on in us. It lives on in me now. We can and should mourn the loss of the future moments we wanted to share, mourn the loss of the physical presence we miss so much, mourn the difficulties and pain, but we can also be grateful for the time we had and how much they gave us.

In our house, conversations about death come up a lot at the moment. It’s natural. And for now when my three year old asks me if I will die I tell her that I will because everyone does some time, but I promise her that I will be there for her for as long as she needs me.

I can see that my answer reassures her. She nods. ‘Okay mummy,’ she says, and she snuggles into bed with her cuddle toy. ‘I love you.’

I kiss her on the forehead and say, ‘I love you, too.’

 

* Helpful Links:

– Supporting Grieving Children, article from The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement. Helpful tips include acknowledging loss and allowing time to grieve, providing reassurance, and being aware of a child’s possible fear of abandonment.

– Children Grieve Too, article with helpful tips for parents and carers. PDF.

Here For Each Other, from Sesame Street on Helping Families After An Emergency. PDF.

 

* Books for Kids:

– Books dealing with death and bereavement, for children, at Brain Pickings.

– Books dealing with death and bereavement, for children and teenagers, at Booktopia, Australia.

– Books dealing with death and bereavement, for children and teenagers, at A Mighty Girl.

 

* Related Helplines:

– Parentline Australia 13 22 89

– Kids Helpline Australia 1800 55 1800

– Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement 1300 664 786

 

Photograph by Berndt Sellheim

17 Comments

  1. Back

    This is so topical for me. Our family dog recently passed and it was my four year olds first experience with death. It’s such an abstract concept and it’s incredibly difficult to find the words that will make sense.

  2. The line “My mum battled against cancer for her daughters, and for her husband, and for herself, but the truth is she had already given us so much, and everything she had already given us, taught us, shown us, lives on in us. It lives on in me now.” is beautiful and one I will read to my daughters aged 17 and 14 who lost their dad in a rock fishing accident six months ago. Thank you for your wonderful writing.

  3. Dallas

    My brother (16 months younger than me) has Downs’ and I remember when we went to see the last Narnia movie when it came out almost a year after our Grandfather’s death. Pa had raised us both so it had hit him particularly hard and occasionally out of the blue he would say “Pa’s died, he’s gone with God” and get upset. I don’t think, even with our Christian upbringing (not that I am any bit religious any more), he had much to hold on to. Even in the Bible God is not a physical entity and that’s a lot for a kid to get their head around. But anyway we went to see this movie and at the end of it they stand at the barrier into Aslan’s land. Reepicheep is offered a place in Aslan’s kingdom and he accepts, knowing that he can never return. And the others are told it’s not their time yet. I think it’s the most blatant the Narnia series ever gets about showing how it links to the Bible.

    My brother came out of that movie very quiet and stayed quiet until we had walked about halfway home. At which point he asked me about Reepicheep and I explained. There was silence again for a moment or two before he said “Aslan… is like God?” It surprised me that he had made that connection and not just taken the story at face value. I told him that yes Aslan was a representation of God in Narnia. He said, “So when they die they go to Aslan?” and I agreed hesitantly, not sure where he was going with it. But then, quite enthusiastically he said “So Pa is with Aslan?” and it was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. It wasn’t such a bad thing any more. He’d finally made that connection and it gave him hope because he liked and understood Aslan. It was easier to deal with.

    Not saying everyone needs to be religious or anything. But find something she’s into that depicts something similar and it might be easier for her to process, is generally what I was aiming to put out there.

    Or write her a story. Sit down with Berndt and write her a short story where the hero is a nice Grim Reaper, like in the Discworld novels, and have them taking good care crossing people and dogs over. So she can have a physical representation in her mind that isn’t mildly terrifying. It might be good for the whole family dealing with it together.

  4. So topical as my beloved uncle died just over a week ago from a short battle with cancer. Our whole family, especially my Dad who was my Uncle’s eldest brother, have been grief stricken.
    My husband and I don’t want to lie to our three year old either. I told her Uncle David had died which meant he was gone and not able to come back. I told her we would be sad because of this. In the lead up to his funeral, I told her there would be lots of tears but we would also smile and laugh because he brought so much happiness to us and we will not forget that about him.
    The hardest part with Evie was a few nights after he died. After books, she always gets to pick a story for me to create. As usual I asked, “What would you like a story about tonight?” Her response was beautiful and harrowing. After much thought she replied, “One where Uncle David isn’t gone.” I talked about how he will never truly be gone because he will always be in our memories and hearts.
    We have had some people say Evie shouldn’t have attended the funeral and we should have talked about it differently with her but your article has reassured me that we are not doing anything ‘wrong’ as has been implied by others.

  5. Claire

    My father died a few weeks ago, and my daughter has had so many questions since. At least the question “do you still fart when you’re dead?” made me laugh.

  6. Anna

    I love your writing.

    My kids are aged 7, 6 and 4 and although we thankfully have not experienced the loss of a close friend or family member yet, we still get asked these questions from time to time. We have also decided to be honest but gentle in our approach, but I have to admit each of my kids became very distressed at the news we would die. Trying to reassure them that it would most likely be “a long way off”, didn’t really help. I like your friend’s suggestion of promising to stay for as long as needed. It is honest but also gives hope. I will remember to use this next time the conversation comes round again. Thank you.

  7. Mel

    A beautiful response to a tough and challenging question. It’s been two years since a good friend passed away leaving behind her two-year old. I’m not sure how the families are managing that conversation at this stage as it’s all still feels so very raw. I hope they find their way when they feel ready…

  8. Tara Moss

    I’m so sorry to hear of your recent loss Janine. Thinking of you during this tough time.

  9. Tara Moss

    Thanks for your thoughts, Dallas. Movies and books have a way of helping us through questions of mortality. I’ve added some links to recommended books for kids on death and bereavement.

  10. Tara Moss

    Thanks for your message, Mel. I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your friend. I hope the families are getting the support they need.

  11. Tara Moss

    Hi Penelope, Thank you for sharing your story. I think you have to go with your instincts, and for us, the decision was clear. Our daughter was at the funeral of our friend because she knew him and liked him, and I wanted her to know she could share in the experience of grief, and later, to know that she had been there when his life was celebrated. Little ones are so honest, and I while every parent makes their own choices, I feel that honesty is what I should offer in return, to the best of my ability. No one should make you feel bad for choosing to include a child in the conversation. They are very perceptive. x

  12. Tara Moss

    Hi Claire, I am sorry to hear of your loss. Great (and very funny) question from your daughter.

  13. This is a beautiful piece Tara, thank you for sharing it.

    I have always been upfront with my daughters about life and mortality. My elder daughter doesn’t seem to think about it much, but my nine-year-old has a morbid fear of death and often looks to me for reassurance. I’m never sure how to give it to her, beyond “it’s a long way off yet!” She feels acutely the inevitable loss of people (and animals) that she loves, and keeps a photo and name tag of her dearly departed cat right by her bed.

    Unfortunately for her, I share her fear and still, at 31, go to my own parents for comfort!

    What has mostly helped me — and what I hope will help her — is to exploit my personal relationships to their fullest. Love people as much as I can, as fiercely as is humanly possible. I think my fear of death stems from being unfinished — that I won’t have said everything, that people won’t know I loved them, that there will be moments we’ve never had together. And of course, the desired outcome of life is different for everyone, but for me, my fear as been quelled somewhat by knowing that, if I die, the people I loved in my life will know it.

    And a lovely side effect is that it helps my daughter, too, because inevitability is often staved off by a bit of love.

  14. Tara dear
    When our only child died talking to her friends was the most difficult thing. Then, I did not and I don’t think I will ever be good in explaining death to a three year old. The best thing is to make it clear when someone dies, they can no longer, talk, hug or be seen again quite clinical approach. We brought one of her friends to the grave site and he blurted with a big cry,” I don’t want Mary Jo in heaven or under the ground, I just want to play with her..” May I invite you to read my book now an ebook in Amazon title:: Kiss from an Angel – How to Turn your Grief Into a Gift from Heaven. It might help some people cope with their loss..
    Your concern for children’s grief is indeed a big challenge for any caring adult as kids emotions and intellect can be so limted in coping with grief, hence being there for their fears and concerns will help a lot.

  15. Sally

    My biggest fear is my daughter, 3, losing her mother before being old enough to remember her. Not only because I wouldn’t be there for her but that any time no matter how limited is equivalent to a lifetime or more to me. That being alive with her for 3 years, 10 years, 15 years, 20, 35 or more is worth the same. At 42 I still have my 75 year old Mum in this world. If I were to go tomorrow how would she know that every minute we have had together is equal to a lifetime especially if she were too young to remember me. I wish I could articulate it better.

  16. When I was 18 my boyfriends brother died instantly in a car accident. He was a 23 yo single parent with a 3 & 4 yo. I was suddenly mum to these gorgeous kids that I hardly knew. We created a very open space were they could always talk about their dad and everything they felt openly and always get the love and support they needed. We talked about dad was not here with us on earth and was in the sky watching over them. In the early days we would watch the stars each night and they would find comfort with this. I explained that that love would always be in their hearts and they could always connect with dad, so he would always be with them.
    When I later had my own children, following a car accident where my car was a write off we explained that our bodies were a bit like cars, that they transport us/our souls around. Sometimes things happen to our bodies that mean they are beyond repair and can no longer transport us around. We\our souls live on, we said that later we’ll get another car and we’ll be able to go on another trip together. I think that this has helped them that they dont see it as permanent or final, more like see ya later rather than goodbye.

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