“This cow is dead!” my two-year-old announced dramatically, while playing with her barn toys. Alarmed to hear such a young child talk about death, I prepared myself for an uncomfortable but necessary conversation. But, before I could say anything, she explained, “He is dead just like Mama’s cell phone. We need to plug him in and let him charge.”
Although amused, I knew at that point that my toddler did not have an even remotely accurate idea of what death is or what happens when someone dies– and the terminology of our high-tech world made the concept ambiguous and confusing for her.
I found a successful way to discuss death with my preschooler. If your preschool-age child has begun asking about death, these tips can help you broach the subject.
1. Correct misconceptions. It would be easy to let your child think that death is impermanent– that, for example, you can bring someone back to life by plugging him back in or wishing hard enough. However, the permanence of death is probably the most critical aspect of it for your preschooler to understand. Should he lose a pet, grandparent, friend or family member, he needs to know that there is no way to bring them back. I gently explained to my daughter, “You can’t make a dead cow alive by plugging it in. When an animal is dead, it’s dead forever and ever.”
2. Avoid melodrama. Your preschooler’s first questions about death are likely to be simple, light-hearted questions, perhaps involving a dead insect or an animal on the side of the road. Under these circumstances, there is no need to create an overly emotional response where none is needed. There’s no need to explain– unless your toddler asks– that death happens to everyone. These understandings will come later, at a time when your child is more capable of handlng the unfortunate realities of death.
3. Don’t lie. How many parents have told their children, “That cat is just sleeping,” when a child has inquired about a roadkilled animal? Although common, this cop-out for talking to preschoolers about death has consequences. Hiding it from them might prevent a temporary emotional response, but it will also prevent them from learning to cope with death itself. The same is true of “fairy tale” answers, such as saying that the person is going to be “asleep for a long time” or that he might come back one day. These only deny the inevitability and reality of death.
4. Avoid the spiritual– for now. If you are religious, it’s certainly fair to share your spiritual beliefs with your toddler. However, young children can’t yet understand the difference between physical and spiritual reality. A toddler will interpret a claim that someone is “with his family” or “in the clouds” very literally. This also confuses her, because she knows that the person’s body is still on (or in) the Earth and can’t begin to fathom the concept of an immortal soul. Until your preschooler is at least four years old, it’s best to avoid these metaphysical discussions to prevent confusion.