Talking to My Daughter About Death

I didn’t realize how far the thoughts had gotten in my daughter’s mind until we were playing a game of hide-and-seek at home. My daughter (I call her Sprout online), reminded me about a game we had played the other week where she got upset when she couldn’t find me. At the time, it seemed like she was just frustrated at not being able to locate me, and we wound up having a laugh after I used our Google Home Minis to help her figure out where I was hiding.

But now, a week later, she reminded me not to hide the way I did that time.

“You were pretty upset when you couldn’t find me, huh?”

She nodded. “I thought you were in Heaven.”

OKAY, let’s back up a bit

Since before she saw Coco, Sprout has had a lot of questions about death. Normally they were general, matter-of-fact questions with no follow ups.

Asking about things like how her great-grandma is dead, and that’s why we don’t see her anymore, or if this or that person who came up in conversation is dead (ex: David Bowie).

Once she came close to realizing the weight of death when talking about pets. We had tried to foster a kitten, but he didn’t get along with our much older cat, Luna. As we set up a new home for the kitten, we had to explain to Sprout that Luna needs to be the only cat in the house.

After that sank in, Sprout looks at me one day and says “I hope Luna dies so we can get a kitten.”

I explained to her how if Luna died, we’d be sad, and we’d never get to see her again, and Sprout realized she didn’t want that. “But I want Luna to be my cat forever!”

She was overwhelmed by the feeling that she had said something horribly mean about her pet, found Luna, hugged her, and formally apologized.

But at the time, she was focused on how it was mean to wish that the cat would die. She hadn’t fully grasped everything. Yet.

A four-year-old’s first existential crisis

I was sitting on the couch as Sprout did one of her regular pace-the-floor-and-talk-with-her-hands sessions, where her ideas are just kind of tumbling out of her brain, and she pauses and turns to me.

“A lot of people have already died. And a lot of other people are still going to be born. How can this be?”

It’s the kind of moment where her question is almost something you can wrap your brain around answering, but I didn’t have time to parse what was underneath it before I saw her brow furrow and the pieces click together.

The tears started, and she let out a wail: “Dying is scary!

Dena hurried into the room, and the two of us quickly hugged her into a Sprout Sandwich on the couch. There were more tears, but we made sure Sprout knew how the people who love her are going to love her for her entire life, even after they’re gone.

Then she told us another part of what she was worried about: That after people die, she’ll forget what they look and sound like.

That’s when Dena pulled out her phone. Because not only do we have pictures and videos of Sprout’s great-grandma, but Dena kept a voicemail that she left on Dena’s birthday years ago. It’s short, sweet, funny, and includes a request that Dena give some hugs to Sprout from her great-grandma.

In the moment, we had some answers for Sprout, and we were able to use the recorded memories stored on our phones as a physical way to show her that the dead aren’t completely gone.

But if you know children, you know that this had no chance of being the end of this conversation.

Death is coming, and that’s okay

We recently had a scare where one of Dena’s aunts looked like she was about to lose her battle with cancer.

She’s rebounded, and though we know she’s not going to go into remission, we’re thankful have more time with her. But at first, when things looked like the worst was coming, we decided we needed to prepare Sprout as best we could.

Dena sat Sprout down while I finished making dinner to lay out the specifics and see if she had any questions, and she also brought home a bag full of picture books from the library about death.

We spent the weekend with family, making sure we were present. Making sure everybody got their hugs and got to spend time with one another.

And we read her the books about death and grieving. Many times. She was particularly focused on having me read a pair of books about a family grieving the loss of their dad, which was uncomfortable enough until she wanted to act out the book with me.

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In all seriousness, this book is really well written and I recommend it (and its sequel) if you need to talk about grief and loss with a young child.

But, as she had me pretend to be her brother, and we went through the story about what the family did after the death of their father, I realized she was just processing her feelings in a safe way. She’s trying on emotions, and connecting with the hurt of these other people so she can think about how she feels, and how she might feel.

It’s one of the things fiction and narrative are fantastic at. You can experience an emotion from a slight remove, helping you understand it better.

I was feeling good about the lessons we were modeling for her, and the books Dena brought home were a big help in finding ways to talk about the big picture. And then came the injection of outside ideas.

If you leave a vacuum, something else will fill it

At one point I took Sprout out to lunch, and to pick up some carry-out for Dena. That’s when she started to talk about Heaven.

“Heaven’s where you get wings! And Jesus and God have wings! Everybody gets wings!”

I asked some questions to figure out where she was getting her ideas about a Red Bull Heaven, and it turned out there was a kid in her day care class who was talking about it.

As I’ve learned recently, she is very willing to believe (without question) that when her fellow four-and-five-year-olds tell her something, it must be true.

And because she’s getting a dose of theology from kids who are playing a game of telephone from what they’ve been told, we get scenes like this:

Driving home, we turn onto our street and Sprout declares (out of nowhere) “God is dead.”

Before I could figure out who had slipped her the Nietzsche pop-up book, she elaborated. “Because God is in Heaven, and everybody in Heaven is dead.”

So… this is where I talk about how I’m somewhat horribly equipped for this part of the conversation.

I didn’t go to church as a kid. There are probably many reasons.

One that I can remember clearly is at a funeral for someone on my dad’s side of the family. They hired a minister to give the eulogy who wasn’t familiar with the family, or with the deceased, and I can sum up his pitch about death as this:

Humans are a mistake. They are flawed, sinful creations. Death is God’s way of correcting His mistake.

I was maybe seven when I heard this. For almost 30 years, it has rattled around in my brain. It made that much of an impact.

My mom did her best, as we walked through the parking lot, to get me to push out the worry that I was a mistake, and that God was eager to kill us all. But you know the moment in Inception where they talk about how it’s useless to tell somebody not to think about something?

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And that lack of grounding created some odd moments for me. When I was a teenager, I was hit by a car while crossing the street. I lost consciousness, got a concussion, and broke my arm. I was lucky, but I was also pretty disoriented.

While I was recuperating, I watched a lot of Viva Variety and started writing a script that I wanted to shoot with my friends. The premise was about someone who has an accident, wakes up in the afterlife, and doesn’t realize it. Whatever entities I had decided were part of the afterlife took the form of this person’s friends and family, and their job was to nudge the recently deceased toward the understanding that they were dead in a way that didn’t overwhelm them.

Because… There was a part of me that wasn’t so sure what I was experiencing. And a weird part of me that thought by writing this down and sharing it with other people, I could convince myself that it couldn’t be true for myself.

That I’d be okay if I could share it with my friends and not have any of them look at me and say, “Oh. Looks like you figured it out on your own.” I was trying to write my way out of a problem, because it was the way I knew how to ground myself at the time.

This is all to say that:

  • I don’t have a lot of formal religious experience
  • Despite having lost family members and people close to me, I’ve never formed a definitive answer to what is death aside from the scientific end of life
  • I am well aware of how botching this conversation can stick with someone for their lifetime, and potentially lead them to some confusing moments later in life.

So no pressure when it comes to helping my four-year-old through all this.

What I wish I could tell her (because sometimes it’s hard to speak to a four-year-old)

I don’t know what happens. We don’t know. No one is certain, but a lot of people are confident about what happens when we die. They have their reasons, they have their faith in their beliefs, but they don’t actually know for sure.

But what happens to a person after they die isn’t the only thing that matters.

We need to think about the people who are still here. The people who love them. The people they love.

We should live like this is enough. Like we will get enough time with the people we love. Like every moment is an opportunity to choose to love each other with all our hearts.

Because no matter what, it will never feel like enough. We will always want one more hug. One more meal. One more story. One more ‘I love you.’ Always. Always. Always.

Because a memory of love can be the same thing as the moment itself. Our memories can be just as strong and sustaining, and as long as our memories last, so does that love.

We will go on without them, but we will not go on without their love.