Explaining Death

Maggie Herself

Maggie Herself

Yesterday morning while the girls were milling about and husband was getting ready for work, I was looking at the morning’s news when the CNN headline announcing Margaret Thatcher’s death popped up.

“Oh,” I said absentmindedly to husband, “Margaret Thatcher died today.”

“How old was she?”

“In her eighties. 87 actually.”

End of conversation, for about 30 seconds. Maeve, my five and a half year old daughter, suddenly asked how old I am. I swear that she hadn’t even been in the room a nanosecond ago.  36, I replied. Now if you don’t know a five year old, they have a pretty decent, but imperfect, grasp of numbers. To her, 36 and 87 end one number apart and are therefore close. So a person close in age to her mother died.

Oh shit.

I could see the little wheels starting to turn in her head and she started to sob a bit, not really saying anything but I knew where this was coming from and where it was going. I scooped her up onto my lap and kept repeating the numbers, I’m 36 and she was 87, that’s a big difference okay? Mommy’s not going anywhere, everything is okay.

She seemed to calm down, and I didn’t want to keep talking if what I said was enough to comfort her. Soon she and her sister were running around the coffee table like it was a NASCAR track and that was that.

Throughout the day though I thought about how I could have handled it better, explained it more in terms she could understand. In some ways Maeve has been lucky- all of her grandparents and even one great-grandparent are still alive. She has not experienced the death of a family member or a pet. However, a schoolmate of hers died last spring from complications of the flu. He was three years old. So her only reference point of death thus far is of someone her age, another kid. It’s a lot easier (in my very humble opinion) to explain the death of an older person to a child. That makes more sense to all of us, really, as it is the natural course of things. I don’t give myself a lot of credit for being a super-intuitive mom but my spidey-sense was tingling that this conversation and process of understanding wasn’t over for her.

I thought about what I could say and reference points I could use. Thatcher was 50 birthdays older than mommy and daddy. She was older than mommy and daddy’s ages combined. She was older than all of Maeve’s grandparents. I was prepared to write down every number between 36 and 87 with her just so she could visualize and realize the difference.

All was well after I picked Maeve and Bridget up from school. We played in the yard, made and had dinner, even cupcakes for a treat before bath time. Then, out of nowhere (I had just put her pajama shirt on and was holding the pants so she could step into them), she burst into tears and wailed “I don’t want you to die!”. Ugh.

I scooped her up again and told everything was going to be okay. She asked again how old Marc and are I. And I told her as plainly as I could all the things I thought about earlier- 50 birthdays, older than anyone she knows, etc. She calmed down and I think it helped her understand better. I just told her that no one was dying anytime soon and she and her family were okay.

I have no idea how effective all of this was- I would not be surprised if there’s another outburst tomorrow and I wouldn’t be surprised if I never hear another question about death from her.

Now might be a good time to mention that my husband and I are not religious. We both grew up catholic but for various reasons float somewhere in the atheist/agnostic spectrum. So I wasn’t about to start in on the heaven and going home to god and angels bullshit (and to me, that’s what it is). I wanted to be honest but not scare her, follow her lead but not hide reality behind a fairy tale.

I do wonder if I should have said more about how this is what happens to us- we age, we become frailer, and eventually die. But I think that would have made her think about her own mortality, and that’s the last thing anyone wants. I will never be 100% sure about this conversation, but I feel like we did pretty well. We were honest, we were straightforward, we answered her questions and didn’t frighten her. Most importantly though, I believe we responded in a way that showed her we cared and would deal with tough situations so in the future she’ll know she can talk to us and we will be honest with her. And that may be the most important lesson we could have taught her.

What has been your experience talking with young children about death? Please share in the comments, I’d love to hear how other parents handle this, especially from a non-religious perspective.