Toddler Development: Talking about Death

I think the three most difficult questions a child is going to ask you will be religion, the facts of life, and death.  Recently, we had a little brush with the topic on death…

Last night, I told Gavin he was going to have dinner with his great grandpa.  When he kept repeating that he was going to have dinner with great grandpa AND great grandma, I felt the need to correct him that great grandma had already passed away.  Just as he always does, Gavin asked why she passed away.

I’ve always made it a policy not to make things up when I talk to Gavin.  The rest of the family might think it simplifies matters to gloss over the truth, or that it makes it easier to gain his cooperation to tell him little white lies, but I have always tried to tell him the truth as far as possible.  Unfortunately, I was too truthful yesterday.

We’ve never really talked about death even though there have been incidents in the family.  We’ve always shielded Gavin from these events because there is a Chinese superstition that children and death don’t mix.  For that reason, we have not been participating in Cheng Beng (the Chinese equivalent of “All Souls’ Day”) since Gavin was born.  My ILs would go to the graveyard to perform the “ceremony”, but Gavin and I would always remain at home.  Similarly, when my grand uncle (who was like a father to my Dad) passed away, I didn’t attend the wake.  When hubby has to attend funerals, Gavin and I would always remain at home.

For that reason, the topic of death has never really come up until now.  When Gavin asked why great grandma died, I said it was because she was old.  Naturally, the follow-on question was why did she die because she was old?  So I tried to explain that it was the natural progression of life.  When people get old, they die.  Even I will eventually die when I get old.

That was a real foot-in-the-mouth moment for me because the moment I mentioned that I, too, would eventually die, Gavin started to cry.  Hubby, on his high horse, reprimanded me for bringing up the subject of death to a toddler.  Okay, so it was a mistake to mention that I was going to die but I was unprepared for the twist in the conversation and I was being true to my “tell the truth” philosophy.  In the end I had to take it back because Gavin wanted me to try not to get old because he didn’t want me to die.

Obviously three years old is the wrong age to be talking about death but we sort of stumbled into the topic.  Given a second chance, I’m sure I would have answered him differently.  Nevertheless, what’s done is done.  My question now is: At what age do you think it is appropriate to explain death to a child?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

5 thoughts on “Toddler Development: Talking about Death

  1. That’s a tough question to answer.

    – Same as you, I’m not intending to tell white lies. Anyway, children who practise ESP / HSP could feel that Mum’s lying.

    – My great-granddad who lived in my home passed away when I was abt five. I was at the hospital watching him take his last breath and attended his wake & funeral. I remember crying and understanding the concept of death from then. At 4-6, children become more logical, so it’s easier for them to understand.

    – Since the topic arose in your case, perhaps it’d be better to first relate the natural progression of life to plants & animals instead of yourself (whom Gavin is most attached to). Let him grow some bean sprouts and watch them wither. Hopefully, that helps him understand that each life comes to an end one day.

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  2. Rachel asked me the same question a few weeks back. Like you I answered her truthfully. She was rather sad and said Mummy dont die, I will miss you very much. I told her that I would miss her too and quickly changed the subject to distract her.

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  3. Interesting post.

    It’s a tough question but I too plan to tell the truth should the question arise but I’ve got time to think about it seeing how Connor isn’t talking yet! Perhaps there is some advantage in my being brought up in a Buddhist family where hey… you get to come back again.. and again.. and again! 😉 Death then doesn’t seem to be so frightening because it’s seen in the context of the whole cycle of existence – that life and death are two sides of the same coin, that when death occurs, it can lead to life.

    Perhaps you could buy him a sickly goldfish (which never fare very well under the care of toddlers anyway) and then when it eventually dies, you could pop it into a hole in the garden and plant some flowers and explain that the fish now lives in the flowers because it’s now fertilising the ground?

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  4. When tracking a toddler’s development, it’s important to consider their physical development, language development and social development. Learn how to use pictures to help track a toddler’s physical development with help from a clinical psychologist and family therapist in this free video on toddlers.

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  5. Thanks for the suggestions. I guess it’s time to start thinking up answers for all these tricky questions because they catch us by surprise, huh?

    The kids grow up so fast. Always thought that this discussion was something far away on the horizon. I guess you can never be too prepared.

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