Talking about death with a preschooler

I know that birth and death are basically the two most universal things on the planet. Well – and sex, I guess, in its various forms.

That doesn’t make it easier to talk about them with a three-year-old.

E has been asking a lot about death recently, for many reasons. Last summer, he had his first exposure to death when our day care provider’s father died – he had lived with the family and interacted with the kids, but he was quite sick – and also old. Then, this summer, E’s great-grandmother (Gramma Sue) died in July, and one of my parents’ cats died in August. Both of them died of old age, which is relatively easy to discuss, though still sad.

Me: Sweetie, I need to tell you something. You remember your Gramma Sue? Well, yesterday, she died.

E: She died? Why did she die?

Me: Well, she was really old. Everybody dies eventually, and she was done with her life.

E: Oh. (pause) Is Grammie going to die?

Me: Someday she will, but not for a really long time.

E: I don’t want Gramma Sue to die.

Me: I know, honey. It’s sad when people die, because we miss them.

E: Yeah, we’re sad.

I was glad to find he didn’t actually seem very perturbed, emotionally. (He had many visits with Gramma Sue, but not spent a lot of time with her overall.) Later, we saw Grammie (my mom) and he gave her a big hug, as we’d encouraged him to do, to help comfort her. Then he announced, “Grammie, I gave you a hug because your mom died.” Nice tact, kiddo.

He has asked more about Gramma Sue, and Sabine (the cat), on several occasions, with different people. I’m glad that he feels safe asking questions when he’s thinking about it; I really want him to talk with us when he’s wondering about things.

The problem is, none of the reasons for those deaths applies to E’s baby brother. I have the feeling that the older E gets, the more confusing it is, especially now that we’re expecting his sister. I hate having to figure out how to enlighten him.

I didn’t even know what stillbirth was until I was at least seven or eight. I remember my parents were watching some BBC miniseries on TV – something I wasn’t interested in, but I happened to catch part of a scene explaining that one character’s wife had died in childbirth. The doctor said sombrely, “The baby was stillborn,” but of course I heard “The baby was still born“, you know, in spite of its mom dying. I remember thinking, Well, that’s good, at least he has a baby… but then it became clear that he didn’t, so I had to ask for an explanation.

Stillborn, born still.  Oh.

We have tried to mention Sebastian to E on a fairly regular basis, so that he is still part of our lives – and so that E grows up with the knowledge of his brother. He knows that Sebastian’s heart didn’t grow properly (we’ve been very careful, as the books recommended, not to talk about him being “sick” or “going to sleep”, because that can cause a lot more anxiety and confusion). He knows our salmon tattoos are there so we can remember Sebastian.

Sebastian salmon tattoo

But this concept isn’t without confusion:

E: Mommy, is my baby in your tummy right now?

Me: Your baby sister? Yes, she’s in there.

E: Where’s Sebastogen?

Me: Well, Sebastian was in there, and he came out, but he wasn’t alive.

E: Oh. (pause) And he was a fish?

Me: No, he was a baby. But we like to think of his spirit like a fish, swimming wherever he wants.

He also knows that Daddy and I each have a necklace that somehow contains something of his brother – but lately I fear that even this is too confusing, since we haven’t been able to bring ourselves to explain cremation to him. I don’t want him to think that his poor baby brother is actually stuck in there, but I don’t want him to have to think about dead bodies being burned either. Either way seems like a recipe for nightmares.

cremation jewelry - eternity circle, mother and child
Eternity Circle, Mother and Child

I’ve had to do a bit of further explanation there, but it’s trickier than I feel qualified to handle sometimes.

E: (pointing to my necklace) Who’s in there?

Me: Well, Sebastian is, but he’s not really in there. It’s more like something to remember him by.

E: Where is he?

Me: His spirit is in heaven, a really good place where he’s safe and he knows we love him.

E: What did you do with Sebastogen?

Me: (God help me. I clung to him as long as I could. After that, it was all up to the hospitals and the funeral home. Can’t explain about ashes right now.) Well… All living things, when they die, they go back to being part of the earth. That’s what happened to Sebastian.

E: I want to die.

Me: What? Why do you want to die?

E: I wanna go to Kevin. So I can play there.

I guess I may have over-sold “heaven” (or Kevin). I’m not completely comfortable with the term, because I think it has too many connotations that I don’t actually believe in (clouds and winged harpist angels and so forth), but I do believe we all go someplace beautiful when we die. My feelings about what happens after death come from what I’ve heard about people’s near-death experiences, and those are all positive: being free, in the light, surrounded by love, knowing that all is as it should be in the universe… I can get behind that.

So I do believe Sebastian is in a really good… dimension, somewhere. Apparently if you’re a three-year-old, it sounds like an awesome place to go play.

Sometimes I wonder if I should show him Sebastian’s scrapbook – specifically, the pictures of Sebastian himself. A real baby, who looks like he’s sleeping. But really, I think that would just be upsetting at this point, at this age. My little E can be a pretty sensitive soul sometimes.

Earlier this summer, there was an incident that made me think he “gets” death more than most little kids. We were in the backyard, and E found a snail shell, and said, “This one doesn’t have a snail.” After a moment, he asked, “Can I smash it?” We are aware of little boys’ need to smash things sometimes, and this seemed a harmless option. He crouched down and smacked the shell with his sand shovel.

I think all three of us realized at the same time, when the shell did NOT make the sound we were expecting, that it wasn’t empty after all. Daddy and I couldn’t stop the instinctive wince: “Oh, buddy… there was a snail in there…” Poor E dropped the shovel and stood up, looking stricken but trying to be calm… He walked over to Daddy without a word and climbed in his lap – at which point he gave in and started sobbing.

We did our best to comfort him, explaining that everything dies sooner or later, lots of snails get eaten by other animals, this one will too… But it took him a while to calm down. (I couldn’t help comparing this to the glee with which some JKs squished a big bug on the playground at school, not long after that incident.) And he still remembered this, and brought it up to talk about it, two weeks later. I still want to cry whenever I think about his little face as he tried to be brave, but was obviously full of regret at what he’d done.

I know the idea of mortality in general is beginning to sink in. He’ll ask me or Daddy if we’re going to die, saying, “I want to have a Mommy and a Daddy.” Of course, we rashly promise that it will be ages before we, or even his grandparents, die. It’s not exactly honest, but I can’t bear the idea of him worrying his magical, innocent head about us dying.

E really does seem happy about his baby sister… but he has said many times since last summer, “I want a brother.” We don’t tell him he already has one, even though he sort of does. I don’t think it would make him feel better, at age three, to think that his brother is in his heart, or looking out for him. He wants a brother to play with.

We talk about love a lot in our house. We are constantly telling E how much we love him, and sometimes it’s a little game (loosely based on the book Guess How Much I Love You): “I love you as big as that tree!” or, more recently, “I love you as green as your shirt,” or “I love you as stripey as this rock.”

The other night, at bedtime, E broke Daddy’s heart with this little conversation.

E: Daddy, where’s Sebastogen?

Daddy: Well, he’s in the afterlife, we think.

E: Is he at the hospital?

Daddy. No, not anymore.

E: Is he sick?

Daddy: No. He won’t ever be sick.

E: Daddy… I want him back.

Daddy: Oh, me too, buddy.

E: I want him back as big as this whole house.

Oh, sweetie pie. If we could trade this whole house to get your baby brother back for you, we would.


15 thoughts on “Talking about death with a preschooler

  1. Auntie CL says:

    me three.

    little E innocently breaking hearts. mine as well.
    but what a strong, sensitive little person. thank heaven.

    i remember i used to wish i had an older brother. i must have been quite old – ten or older – when i found out i had “almost” had one – Mother’s late miscarriage between Bev and me. whew. i stopped wishing.

    we just had a long skype visit this evening with one of our very dearest friends who is suddenly dying. fine a few weeks ago, but likely won’t make the end of the year, barring a miracle. which could happen. but probably won’t. another mystery. life is full of wild cards. so is death.

    E will be so wise so early. most kids are, but they tend to lose it; i think he will not. lucky E for having such good parents.

    • diblog says:

      Auntie, did you stop wishing because you knew there was a “big” brother somewhere out there for you? Or because the knowledge made you look at things differently?

      I’m really sorry to hear about your friend. What an awful shock.

    • diblog says:

      Me too, Shannon… I don’t think I realized how much he really thinks about it, and wishes things were different. 🙁

  2. Carrie says:

    Me Four…..
    Gotta love that little Man (and he really is !)
    I think you are doing such a remarkable job explaining such a hard topic to someone so sensitive, intuitive and young. M hasn’t had any close-to-home encounters yet, so I haven’t been there. God Forbid I have to go there anytime soon, but should I, I know where I am coming back to for hints and help!thanks Di

    • diblog says:

      Thanks, Carrie. Your words mean a lot… after all, isn’t it just one of the hardest things, having confidence that you’re doing a good job as a parent, especially at the more difficult moments?

  3. lola says:

    me five. *sniff, sniff*

    death sure is tricky to talk about with kids. sounds like you guys have been honest, without saying too much. it is tricky to walk that fine line.

    the only time we have had to really talk about death was when we had to put our dog down. my bear was just three when it happened, and to this day he still talks about death almost weekly. he tells me he misses roo and wishes they could play together. now that he is 4.5 yrs his questions about death are slightly more complicated than when he was three.

    obviously losing a brother is not the same as losing a pet, but explaining the end of life, anyone’s life, to a child is difficult. bear killed a fly the other week and was devastated, because he had ended a life. that was a tricky conversation too.

    thanks for sharing!

    • diblog says:

      Poor little bear… He’s clearly a really sweet and sensitive soul as well. As he gets older, have there been questions you didn’t know how to answer? I feel sure we haven’t dealt with the hardest parts yet…

  4. emerge says:

    E has sometimes asked me about my necklace too, “Is Sebastogen in there?” – my dark glass one with the swirl in it. It does look like a spirit, pretty much. But I’ve said no. Though actually I wonder… it’s sort of like he’s in EVERYthing. Including E. And I don’t think you need to worry about him learning the facts; he’ll learn them eventually and in the meantime explaining it won’t change the situation or his understanding of it. Your feelings about S are the most important part of it, and I think you’re giving him a good, -safe- impression of that when necessary.

    I had the same experience as you, Di, with the word “stillborn.” I don’t know if it was from a show or just someone saying it, but there’s the moment when a word that you thought meant something GOOD turns out to mean that in fact it’s all bad… It’s a hard moment.

    • diblog says:

      Emi, I really like the thought that he’s in everything, like you say. Thanks for being part of E’s learning process. <3 <3

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