I mentioned in my last post that the four year old has recently been struggling with the idea of mortality. It’s kind of heartbreaking, and yet just a part of life, I suppose. The other day, we were talking about health and longevity and such over a meal. It was just me and the kids; I was in the kitchen and preoccupied with getting dinner on the table while we were all chatting.
We had been talking about aging, and the four year old was getting the concept that older people and animals die sooner than younger ones, for the most part. He was discussing things with me and his seven-year-old brother, and the following exchange happened:
Four Year Old: “My brother is going to die before me, then.”
Me: “Well, you guys are close in age; you’ll probably live about the same amount of time.”
Four Year Old: “No, because he’s older than me.”
Me: “Yes, he’s a little older than you, but when you get to be grown ups, he won’t seem that much older. So he might not die before you. But Mommy and Daddy will probably die before you do.”
I didn’t really think much of my comment when I said it. He was silent for a moment, clearly thinking really hard about this, and then he said, quite confused, actually:
“Mommy? I kind of feel like my brain wants to cry.”
And OH MY GOD, I nearly melted to the floor in a puddle of love and pain and despair. My brain nearly starting crying on the spot. He was looking at me like, why do I feel like I’m going to cry? Truly baffled.
It was an amazing moment, though; one of those little parenting events that will probably stay with you for the rest of your life. Clearly, he was trying to think rationally about death, and suddenly emotion overcame him and he couldn’t figure it out. He couldn’t grasp exactly why he felt like he wanted to cry at that moment. It was like watching his mind grow in real time.
I came over and sat with him, gave him a hug, and I told him, “Oh, honey, that’s ok! Do you know why your brain wants to cry? It’s just because you are feeling kind of sad that Mommy and Daddy will die someday. And that’s ok. It’s ok to feel sad, but we won’t die for a long, long time. Not until after you are grown up, and you have your own kids, and then Mommy and Daddy will be the grandma and grandpa!”
We talked then a little about when they grow up, who will become what, like Mommy and Daddy being the grandparents and how his kids would be cousins with his brother’s kids, yadda yadda. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps I hadn’t handled it quite right. Is there a right way to handle these things? I don’t know.
I kept thinking afterwards that I shouldn’t have mentioned that we would die before he did. Was that wrong? Is he too young? Did I scar him for life? It just kind of came out, but maybe it was too much truth for such a little guy.
What do you think? What would you have done? When should one start to broach the subject of death with a child who has no experience of it?
I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments!