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The Four Year Old Struggles With Mortality

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!




Leave a Comment

  • April 14, 2011, 5:25 pm Debi

    Talking about death is scary and difficult for anyone – not just kids – so don’t beat yourself up over how you handled it. I think avoiding the subject altogether is the worst thing you could have done.

    An ideal time to approach the topic is during a teachable moment, of course – when you see a dead bug or flower in your backyard, for instance. All things die – not just people – and sometimes that helps kids wrap their head around the idea more easily.

    Our teachable moment came when my dad passed away when my oldest was 4 1/2. I was such a mess – and he was there to see it all. There were MANY conversations about death, hurt hearts and what it means to lose someone. The good news is that he has seen me go through the grieving process in a healthy way. We celebrate my dad & talk about him often (keeping him in our lives, I like to think). And I’m not afraid to tell my kids that just like my dad died, someday theirs will too.

    I think grief is something we suck at as humans. I’m proud of you for asking the tough questions.

  • April 14, 2011, 5:48 pm Beth

    Thanks for sharing, Debi. You should be so proud that you provided that model for your kids. Even the younger one, though he wasn’t around for the actual event, can see the way you keep someone you loved who is no longer around in your hearts. Nice work. :-)

  • April 14, 2011, 6:08 pm Judy Ring

    You actually handled it quite well. It was an open, honest conversation; some teachable moments arise when we least expect them. We cannot shield our children from life’s heartaches and struggles, no matter how much we try. What we can, and must do, is talk with them, teach them how to power through those struggles and come out on the other side. You did it right by voicing the emotion for him, comforting him, reassuring him, and then taking the conversation to a more likely (and happier) future. If he brings it up again, then a matter-of-fact tone, coupled with more reassurance, will help him continue to make sense of it. Always answer the question they ask, when they ask it, but don’t necessarily offer more info than that. (Can you tell I’m a retired counselor? I cannot resist the urge to advise…)

    • April 14, 2011, 8:22 pm Beth

      Judy, great advice and wise words. I’m glad you are a retired counselor!

  • April 15, 2011, 3:05 am Keely

    Aw, poor little guy! I’m not quite at that stage yet, but getting there. I think you handled it really well.

    When I went through the same stage as a kid myself, I demanded assurances from my mother that she wasn’t going to die. She’s honest to a fault and couldn’t really tell me that. I mean, she could get hit by a bus tomorrow, right?

    No wonder I have issues.

  • April 15, 2011, 1:27 pm Beth

    I think you handled it fine. My kids have begun talking about dying lately and I didn’t know if that was a typical developmental stage at this point. My daughter and I had the following conversation the other week:

    5 yr old – Mommy, I’m going to miss you when you die.
    Me – I know honey, but I’m not going to die for a long, long, super long time.
    5 yr old – ok but I’m still going to miss you…

    Heartbreaking. I didn’t know what to say at that point. I think I hugged her and then pulled out scrabble jr as a distraction. Turning it into who will be what when they grow up, cousins and grandparents was a good idea, have to remember that for the next time she brings it up!

  • April 27, 2011, 4:06 am tiny twig/hayley

    i have a 4 year old and he’s been dwelling on mortality recently, too. i think it’s a fairly common developmental milestone at about 4 or 5 to go through this. :) just wanted to let you know that you aren’t alone and i think you handled it beautifully.

  • August 1, 2011, 5:02 pm Denise

    Hello, I just stumbled on this conversation tonight. My kids are a little older (6 and almost 9) than your kids seem so I went through this a little while ago. Not that I am an expert, but every example on this seems to have been handled really well. One of the (few) things I remember from my child development class days is that kids can’t fully understand death until about 5. So it makes sense that your kids are all the about the same age. When my son was about 5 my daughter was saying that “G.G. (my grandmother) was still alive- in our hearts.” I thought it was so sweet and showed some maturity. Then my son added, “In my heart: she’s still dead.” I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Showed how he was not quite there yet, but was trying!

    • August 1, 2011, 5:53 pm Beth

      That is so funny! If you look at my follow-up post, you’ll see that we had a similar comedy moment the next night, when my 4 year old told my husband he might not be able to do something for him when he grows up because “you might be dead by then.” :-)