During bedtime two weeks ago, T asked me, “Papa, are you old?”
“I’m older than you. Why do you ask?” I replied.
“When you get old, will you die?” He asked.
I was caught so off guard. My gut reaction was, “Are you kidding me? It’s past your bedtime. I am so tired. And I just want to go to bed.”
But of course, I did not say that. I paused and collected my thoughts.
“Why do you ask?” I asked. I was concerned. It seemed like such a dark and heavy topic for our usual happy-go-lucky boy.
I tried to remember if he had watched something on TV and I wondered if he may have heard a story from school that upset him.
“Are you gonna die when you get old?” He asked again.
I am a straightforward person – sometimes too direct – and I believe that it’s important to be honest with T and to normalize difficult subject topics, like death.
But I will say that I struggled with this answer. “We’re all going to die one day. But life has a beginning, middle and an end.”
“What happens when you die? Will I die one day too?” T asked.
“We all die one day,” I said and repeated that life has a beginning, middle and an end.
“Will I die soon?” He asked.
“I hope not!” I said. “You’re a young boy. You have a long life ahead of you.”
“I don’t want Papa and Daddy to die. Or I’m going to be alone,” he said and then started to cry.
I was able to reassure him that we are going to be here for a while and that he has nothing to worry about. I can’t guarantee that obviously, but let’s be positive here! But he fell asleep peacefully.
I was bummed after the chat – not only because it was such a dark topic, but I wish I could’ve answered his questions better.
I texted a good friend who has two young girls and she said, “Oh my God, I fucking hate the death talk!” I had quite the laugh and felt better about my own reaction.
So I read up about how to have this difficult conversation with kids, including this insightful Fatherly.com article, and I spoke about it with the wonderful child psychologist who has been supporting our family the last two years.
I kept these useful tips in mind for the subsequent times T brought up the topic – thankfully not too often since!
Be truthful and factual – When T asked me again why people die, I reiterated that life has a beginning, middle and an end and that death is a normal part of life. Things in nature like plants and animals also die. The best advice I read was to keep it factual when asked what happens when you die: “Your heart stops.”
Avoid euphemisms – Don’t say things like “You go to sleep forever” because kids will develop a fear of falling asleep. I will admit I laughed when I read that. Also avoid saying things like “They go away to a better place” because the child may think they’ve been abandoned.
Only answer what they ask – Our child psychologist says this is a heavy topic and is a lot for a child to process, so keep the response to what they ask and need to know.
Tell them you plan to be around for a long time – When T asked me again if I’m old and if I will die soon, I told him that I’m older than him but I am still young and that the hubby and I plan to live until we are 100. T knows that is a big number and I could tell that he felt comforted.
Didn’t use religious symbols – I know many families use religious symbolism as a means of comforting children (e.g. Grandpa is now in heaven). Religion is something we are not introducing to T at this point. But it’s certainly something that can help comfort children and I respect that.
Now that I’ve had distance and reflection about this, I feel better. I’m not overly concerned at this point that T has brought up this topic. It seems like an age appropriate thing to ask.
In some strange way, I find it interesting that T is thinking about such deeper topics. It shows me that things are moving and maturing in that little head of his.
Hopefully this topic doesn’t consume too much of his thoughts. And if it does, we’re ready to hear him out and to respond in a way that hopefully reframes it in a positive and reassuring way.