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How I told my preschooler about death

It was a pretty typical weekday evening in early summer: I stood in my kitchen making dinner. My daughter, then 4, had been in the bathroom and walked up to me with a solemn look on her face. She carried a pink hand towel emblazoned with an owl that her nanny had given her as a prize for successfully using a toilet two years’ earlier. It was one of her most prized possessions. I assumed she needed help hanging the towel back up.

“Mom?” She raised the towel to my hands. “I want you and Dad to have this so you’ll remember me after I die.”

Earlier that year, my grandmother passed away after a brief illness that followed a massive stroke. We attended a memorial service in the small town in northern Wisconsin where my grandmother spent her summers. While I decided a funeral would be too much for my child to handle — based largely on her inability to sit quietly for an hour — she would join the rest of my family for the weekend.

I knew the reason we were there would come up. My husband and I debated how to discuss death with our daughter, who had only met my grandmother a handful of times. On one hand, we wanted to always be honest with her. But was explaining a loss she might not feel worth the questions that would arise?

More: How to give your kids bad news

I also debated bringing up the afterlife. It felt like an easy way out — “but everything’s OK because she’s somewhere perfect now!” Plus, I worried my daughter might have a hard time distinguishing between our current world and the possibility of the next. I know I did when I was her age. I clearly remember my first plane ride, when I wasn’t much older than my daughter — I kept looking for long-dead relatives among the clouds, since I assumed when you ascended to heaven, you took the same path as an airplane. Hannah flies much more than I do, as my parents live in another state, and I don’t want to spend the next five years explaining why the clouds aren’t actually part of heaven. We have many years ahead of us to discuss the concept of heaven and what happens when you die. For now, I wanted her to understand why we would be at Great Grandma’s house and Great Grandma would not be present.

I landed on the simplest version of the truth.

“Well, bud, someone that I loved very much died after a long time,” I said. “My grandma got very sick. Sometimes when you get sick, it’s like a cold. It’s pretty minor and you get better. But some sicknesses, especially when someone is as old as my grandmother, are more serious. Her body shut down and she died. So she’s not around anymore.”

I told her that Great Grandma couldn’t talk to us anymore or give us hugs. Mom and Dad were sad and would miss Great Grandma. Most people had lives like Great Grandma: They lived a very long time, had lots of adventures, loved a lot of people and then their bodies slowed down and stopped working.

“The best we can do is appreciate the time we spent together and think about how happy our memories make us,” I finished. This felt age-appropriate and like just enough information to quiet her preschool-aged brain. I asked if she had any questions.

She looked at me almost defiantly. “That doesn’t sound very good. I’m not going to do that.”

My husband looked pained. I said as gently as I could, “Buddy, you don’t have a choice.” I took a deep breath. “Everyone dies.”

“Even you?”

“Even me.”

“But I don’t want you to die.”

While this felt like the 12th circle of hell to my husband and I, I could see in my daughter’s eyes that she approached death with the same disappointment and curiosity she approached running out of episodes of “My Little Pony” on Netflix. She wasn’t uncomfortable as much as unsatisfied with the options that remained. I knew that the best thing I could do was to keep answering her questions honestly.

So I explained that I didn’t want to die either, but it was a fact of life that I had resigned myself to long ago. She asked if she could die before my husband and I, so she wouldn’t have to live without us. I absorbed that particular gut punch.

“It’s not up to us to decide when we die,” I said carefully as my husband nodded his support. “But Dad and I are almost certainly going to die before you.”

She gasped.

“It’s OK. It’s probably not going to happen for a long time,” my husband interjected. “Your mom and I are both young and healthy. We’re probably going to live many more years.”

Well, youngish.

I chimed in again. “I can’t promise you that this is true, because we just don’t know what will happen. But I’m pretty sure that this is how it’ll work out.”

She was silent for a minute. “Can I have a snack?” she asked. We didn’t talk about death the rest of the weekend.

A month or two later, my parents stayed with us after cleaning out my grandmother’s cottage. They brought an old wallet to give to my daughter and for me, a jewelry box and a copy of Peyton Place, which my grandmother had inexplicably loaned to me while visiting her when I was a teenager, something I’d referenced in the eulogy I gave for her. I told my daughter that these were the types of things that could help us remember the people we’d lost.

Which is why she now calmly stood in my kitchen, somewhat older and wiser, offering me her favorite towel. I turned the burners off and crouched down.

“Buddy,” I said, grabbing her shoulders, “I’m very grateful that you want to give me something so important to you. But neither of us is going to die today or probably any time soon. So why don’t you hang onto your towel for now. And if for some reason, you die before your dad and I, which probably won’t happen, I promise that Dad and I will remember absolutely everything about you.” 

I gave her a hug. She kissed my cheek and toddled away, towel in hand.

More: Tackle or dismiss your child’s fears?

Later that summer, our beloved dog died suddenly. Having had the difficult conversations we had after my grandmother’s death made explaining what happened much easier. My daughter cried — and I did too — but she easily accepted that the dog suddenly became sick and died at the vet’s office. The next evening, I took my daughter out for ice cream to cheer her up. On our way, we saw a beautiful shaggy white dog and its owner sitting at a patio. My daughter asked if she could pet it.

“My name is Hannah,” she said, petting the dog’s head. She looked at the dog’s owner. “My dog Sophie died yesterday.”

“You must be very sad,” the dog’s owner said.

My daughter nodded and then smiled, still petting the dog. “Yeah, but it’s OK. She was sick, and we’ll hold her in our hearts forever.” 

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