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Concept of death - 3.9 year old. Share thoughts please on age old issue

(35 Posts)
Sycamoretreeisvile Mon 15-Jun-09 10:52:43

Hi Ladies,

My DD 3.9 said to me the other day "mummy, children don't die do they, only grown ups die".

And also "mummys and daddys don't die to they, only old people die".

I was quite shocked to find myself just slightly swerving the issue and generally making noises to suggest she was right.

DD's beloved Grandad died when she was 2.5. She didn't really understand it but she knows he has "died" and we knew it was coming so she was as prepared as it's possible to prepare her.

We're not religious so I haven't done the whole "he's watching over us, with the angels" thing, but I have said that I believe he lives on in our wonderful memories of him and all the good deeds he did whilst he was alive, and all the things he taught us (can you tell I'm channelling Badger's Parting Gifts? grin)

Anyway, back to my OP. I realised I felt there was little point worrying DD unnecessarily. My thinking is that sooner or later she will realise that everyone, including her will die eventually. And by that time she'll be old enough to understand why I protected her from that at such a young age...if she even remembers me saying it.

I know some of you will say I'm setting her up for a shock if something tragic DOES happen but I have to say that's a chance I'm willing to take.

Am interesting in how any others have handled this issue with pre-schoolers, and anyone whose gone through it and up to the point where their DC's are old enough to realise now that everyone dies in the end.

RealityIsMyOnlyDelusion Mon 15-Jun-09 11:08:21

Message withdrawn

GentlyDidIt Mon 15-Jun-09 11:21:37

Good question. We had to face this head-on due to a late miscarriage when DD had just turned 3. Didn't realise I was in labour (at 4 months pg) until I was in the throes - was on my own with DD and had to get emergency babysitting help by phone so that she wouldn't see things get worse.

We told her the baby wouldn't be coming because it wasn't "finished." She asked outright if it had died in my tummy - I judged that if it had occurred to her, then she was ready to talk about it, so I said yes. Reassured her that it didn't hurt the baby.

She followed this up with plenty more questions about people who weren't in the family any more, and I answered them all honestly. Then she wondered if children die, and I replied that sometimes yes, but this is rare and people usually die when they are very old and poorly.

For about a month it was a regular subject, and sometimes comes up now if there is a mention of death anywhere. She has never cried about it, or expressed any fear of death. When her goldfish died she cried for half an hour and then asked for a bigger one next time...

I use the same philosophy as with sex questions - if they ask the question, tell them the answer gently and accurately, and don't add any more information unless they ask for it. For example, DD asked what happens when you die and I replied "No-one really knows, but lots of people have different ideas about it." She didn't ask what those different ideas might be, so I held back from adding loads of extra information about heaven/reincarnation/nothing!

I don't think you are setting her up for a shock at all and don't subscribe to the view that knowing about death/sex/whatever spoils a child's innocence. It's important to help children manage these very human feelings and worries as soon as they begin to have them.

Incidentally my first major bereavement was at the age of 25 and until then I don't think we had ever spoken about death in the family. Whilst nothing can really prepare you for it, I think I was in denial for an unusually long time, because up until then death was something that just "didn't happen in our family."

As usual though, your instincts are best - you are the best judge of what your DD can handle. It's a difficult one, for sure.

Sycamoretreeisvile Mon 15-Jun-09 11:47:43

Thanks for sharing Gently, and sad for your story.

We bought a goldfish for DD sort of precisely to help her get to grips with the notion of dying really.

I thought I was the pragmatic type, but seems I can't look DD in the eye and tell her yes, children die.

But I know what Reality is saying about them being matter of fact about it too. As a child I just remember thinking death was so far away for me and my parents that I didn't need to worry about it. Even though I never knew my grandpa as was always told he died before I was born, and i lost two grandparents before I was 10. My one remaining grandparent, my nana, is still going strong at 87!

Often wonder what it must have been like for her to live so long withouth her huband sad

acebaby Mon 15-Jun-09 13:07:43

sad sorry to hear about your late miscarriage Gently

DS1 (3.10) is also very interested in the concept of death. I have made a bit of a mess about explaining it to him. He was frightened about the concept of burial, so I tried to explain and said something like 'only the body is buried'. He now thinks that dead people go round with a head attached to their legs and asks about, for example, how they poo if they haven't got a bottom anymore.

Just a cautionary tale about the need to be frank and not to try to introduce concepts of mind-body duality to 3yos. If anyone has any ideas about how I can gently correct these misconceptions or can suggest a book DS1 and I could read together, I'd be grateful. Poor DS1 is very confused.

notnowbernard Mon 15-Jun-09 13:18:18

I found this one tricky too

I think they do tend to either be matter-of-fact about it or slightly anxious

I think that's because they're just starting to grasp what the concept of death really is... but not the whole concept

DD1 said to me last year (she was 4) that when The Cat died, we would get a new one, wouldn't we? I took from that that she had grasped that when someone/thing dies, they don't come back again... but not how emotionally distressing this is

She's also asked if it's just old people that die, or because I'm older I'll die before her... agian with no real concern. So I'm prepared to simply answer the questions she asks for the moment

Have read some good threads on here about this issue, with some good ideas on how to address it. I seem to recall ahundredtimes making good suggestions, if that's any help smile

Sorry to all those who have been forced to address this difficult issue with LOs suddenly and so early sad

Sycamoretreeisvile Mon 15-Jun-09 20:10:10

Thanks guys - this is all helpful.

My problem has been with DD stating things to me, like she's just looking for me to reassure her that her ideas are right, rather than asking me outright if children die, iyswim. I think if she asked me outright I'd find it easier to give her a straight answer.

AtheneNoctua Mon 15-Jun-09 20:26:22

I just tell the truth, straight up. If they are old enough to ask the questions, they are old enough to hear the answer. Kidsa are more resilient than you think. They don't understand the emotions that go with the loss though so it's really not a traumatising realisation. It's more like a conversation about facts and science.

Acinonyx Mon 15-Jun-09 20:47:55

We've been struggling a bit with this one. Dd (nearly 4) started asking about death about a year ago, but quite matter of factly and just the odd questions, usually about my parents, who both died before she was born.

About 2 months ago the interst accelerated. At first with little emotion then about a month ago she started to get anxious and upset and now we regularly (until this week twice or more daily) have e.g.:

When will we die?
What day will we die?
Why do we die?
Who will die first?
When you die, I think I will just die then.

She has been in tears over dying and definitely fears our loss. I want to be very factual but it is harder than I expected as she has become quite emotional about it. I think it's calming down just now, thank goodness.

I have been thinking of writing a sealed letter to her on the subject, because of course, I could die any day (and I am an older parent) and I know that losing a prent is one of the most traumatic events and yet I will not be there to help her.

Anyway, I am not finding it as easy to be frank and factual as I had hoped. Dd is not a child that copes well with dark topics. But partly for that very reason, I think it's important not to fudge the topic and tell any untruths (although I am very economical with the truth). Personally, I would not imply that adult children or parents never die - the more that is internalised the more shocking the truth will be. I suspect that some of these hard truths get harder to cope with, not easier.

AtheneNoctua Mon 15-Jun-09 21:01:05

Oh gosh, that's tough. I think I would say "not today" and change the subject to a happier one.

Sycamoretreeisvile Mon 15-Jun-09 21:32:16

Acinonyx - that is hard.

I feel terrible about not telling the truth, but I also feel it wasn't a HUGE conversation so I think next time I'll be able to be more honest.

What about "yes, sometime children do die, but hardly ever and that I have never known a child that has died"?

Yes mummy and daddy will die one day but not for a really, really, really long time?

Acinonyx Mon 15-Jun-09 21:47:55

At the moment I always tell her people die when they are really, really old. I feel rather dishonest about that - but like you, I am stalling until she asks more directly perhaps. But the other day she heard something on the radio about a 'boy ....killed' - she started to ask about it then mercifully got distracted. But that's how easy it is for the innocence to be lost.

Alas, I have known children who died. I'm not a good liar!

Sycamoretreeisvile Mon 15-Jun-09 21:52:22

I have started a depressing thread, haven't I?

Sorry ladies! I just find parenting is quite difficult. Lots of the time I know what I should be doing or would like to be doing - even though I might struggle with that.

With this issue, I just genuinely don't know what's for the best.

Acinonyx Mon 15-Jun-09 21:56:13

'I just genuinely don't know what's for the best.'

I think that is my parenting mantra these days!

GooseyLoosey Mon 15-Jun-09 22:03:25

Our children started asking a lot about death when they were 3 and 4. We are not religious but wanted to give an answer that was accurate whilst not being scary so we have told them that everything becomes something else. All the bits which make them up have been something else before and will become something else when they die.

My grandmother died last year and we have a plant in our garden that was hers and her mothers before that. Part of her ashes were scattered over the plant. The dcs now think of part of her as being in the plant and of their own volition went to water it on her birthday.

We are as open as we can be about death as I grew up being terrified about the idea of it and I do not want the dcs to feel the same.

Sycamoretreeisvile Mon 15-Jun-09 22:03:54

smile at Acinonyx

cory Tue 16-Jun-09 08:36:07

I wouldn't rely on that goldfish, sycamoretree: a well cared for goldfish can live for 40 years and should live for at least 10.

If it dies prematurely, that is usually due to lack of appropriate care- not an example you want to set to your dd.

saintmaybe Tue 16-Jun-09 09:31:54

I've said that we die when it's our 'time' to die, and not before, and for most people that's when you're old.

Or i think it was on here that someone said 'when you've had enough of living'.

Somehow that's really reassured mine. But they do ask A LOT about death and I don't ever lie to them. I think if you seem evasive or uncomfortable it freaks them out, because it's then something so awful that you can't deal with it/ are scared of it, iyswim

they look to you to see if they should be worried, imo, like when they fall over and look at you first to see if it's serious enough to cry?

commanderchaos Tue 16-Jun-09 09:52:48

When this came up with DS (3), we talked about how every living thing (flowers, cats, people) has a beginning and an end. Just like stories. And being born is the beginning, and dying is the end, we don't know when it will happen, just that it will. When I explained this, DS said 'But stories don't die, do they mummy?'. Which I thought was really interesting, so I thought he was able to cope with the idea of how the inside bit of you doesn't die because you live on in the hearts of those that love you (to quote Martin Amis).

GentlyDidIt Tue 16-Jun-09 11:30:10

GooseyLoosey and comanderchaos have good ideas there about the idea of things changing form, rather than disappearing.

The Lion King has a thoughtful scene in which the Dad explains to his son that when lions die they become the grass, which antelope then eat, etc.

Unfortunately, son then witnesses Dad getting creamed in a stampede. hmm

Sycamoretreeisvile Tue 16-Jun-09 13:05:50

Cory - DD's grandad (my dad) died, so no, am not relying on the goldfish to introduce concept of dying.

The goldfish is an afterthought. But thanks for your helpful post I'll be sure to take good care of it smile

katiek123 Tue 16-Jun-09 15:51:56

cory - you put the (retrospective) fear of god in me with your shock goldfish facts - ours only just finally died after a year and a half, and i was beginning to think that he was hanging on a bit longer than i'd bargained for grin - will certainly never risk another now that i've read your post

sarah293 Tue 16-Jun-09 15:55:47

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ICANDOTHAT Tue 16-Jun-09 15:57:51

I told my boys that people die when they are really old or really really sick. They did ask if that included children or mummies and daddies. I told them yes, but they have to be very poorly. They seemed to be happy with that as they knew none of us were 'poorly'. It never occurred to me not to tell them the truth, death is all around us and shouldn't be treated as the taboo subject we regard it with in this country.

ICANDOTHAT Tue 16-Jun-09 15:59:59

Riven that is bloody awful. Jesus, do these people never friggin think before they open their mouths ....

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