How to explain mortality to a 4 year-old
October 13, 2012 7:57 AM   Subscribe

How to explain mortality to a 4 year-old.

My 4 year-old daughter recently started asking about her own mortality. She asks if she will die and what happens to people after they die, and she says in an upset way that she doesn't want to die. What are some good ways to answer these questions and concerns? Note that I am not religious but I am open to telling her about various ways that people think about death.
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Don't lie, but you can give her hope.

Explain how we, like all "machines", eventually wear out and just stop working... Then explain that a whole genre of scientific research deals with trying to make us wear out slower and repairing us when we do break. Someday, science will make us all immortal.

You can gloss over the likelihood of such research eventually succeeding within her lifetime (though hey, they could have a major breakthrough tomorrow!), and by the time she learns that subtlety, she'll have much more capacity to deal with the concept of death in general.

Perhaps you'll inspire her to go into longevity research herself!
posted by pla at 8:19 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really like the idea of talking about what various people think. Personally I would tell a kid some version of: you move onto a different, higher plane, and you are still connected to loved ones. I'm at least prepared to believe something like that, though. I might also tell an older kid that you don't know what death is like until you go through it, any more that you knew what being born would be like before you were. And that our minds are not yet prepared to grasp what happens after death but that we die into greater knowledge. But I don't think four-year-olds want to hear that. They probably want to be reassured about separation above all. At least that's the way I remember it.
posted by BibiRose at 8:35 AM on October 13, 2012

Oh yeah and I think the other thing is, discussion more than just explanation. You can ask her what it is specifically that upsets her about it and address those issues. I actually remember being that age and asking about it many times; it was a process.
posted by BibiRose at 8:41 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

My four-year old son watches lots of nature documentaries and asks lots of questions about roadkill so we've had to discuss mortality quite a bit. He seems very reassured (and fascinated) by discussion of how when animals are buried they turn back into soil from which plants grow which will then feed other animals.

I'm not sure how, or if, he makes a connection between that and people dying, but if discussing people, he seems happy with the idea that when people die, the fact that other people remember them means that they never really go away and are still there somehow.
posted by melisande at 8:43 AM on October 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's never to early to admit there are some things no one really knows the answers to.

But I like the recycling of physical stuff discussion, too. It's pretty cool to think about how so much around you was once something else, like that the plastic on your countertop might have been a dinosaur...
posted by mdn at 8:55 AM on October 13, 2012

She asks if she will die and what happens to people after they die, and she says in an upset way that she doesn't want to die.

Just for the record, most 4 year olds will be satisfied with a conversation that is less explanation and more reassurance. "Oh, well, one day but not for a long long long time. You have to spend a long time being our little woobie first / you have to grow even older than grandma first!"
posted by DarlingBri at 9:12 AM on October 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

You have quite the sophisticated four year old.

My daughter was explaining the reason why people should not eat meat. This was three weeks ago and she was a week from being five. She then asked why people would continue to eat an animal if one must kill it thus hurting it in the ultimate way (detailing blood and pain and other such things.)

I feel the same as others here that you have to simply explain to her what happens in the scientific sense. She's too smart for the "because God wants another angel and will call for a person" stuff. It will only confuse her. Like my daughter, she already has an idea of what things are and how things happen so if you try to tell her something that is not fact, it will frustrate her, confuse her and she may doubt you in the future when she questions something.

Tell her what happens and if she asks about consciousness or soul or spirit, explain that many people believe many different things. She can decide which story she likes better and go with that one.

Good luck and please mail me with what happens, I think this may happen with my daughter soon and I'll need help!
posted by Yellow at 9:13 AM on October 13, 2012

like melisande above we've discussed in vague terms the notion of returning to the earth for our three-year olds. They're already obsessed with helping dad make compost for gardening, and it seems to tie things together for them.
posted by werkzeuger at 9:22 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone dies, no one really knows what happens afterward, but there are many things people believe and hope for. Good oportunity for discussing the concept of faith, what do you guys believe in? Also, remember that you too were non-living before you were conceived, so your passage from non-living to living already happened once, who knows what could happen next time?
posted by Tom-B at 9:54 AM on October 13, 2012

Previously. I would personally go with something like DarlingBri's line. Everything is very concrete to a four year old and I would try to minimize how much they think about it until they have more cognitive tools to understand unlikely events and things that are very distant in time. Bear in mind also that a smart four year old may also make the jump from the idea that they will die one day to the idea that you, their parent, will die, and that can be very distressing for them.
posted by crocomancer at 10:09 AM on October 13, 2012

I would try to convey to her the general idea that death can be good -- that it is because of death, because we won't live forever, that makes our time alive so meaningful.
posted by lobbyist at 10:11 AM on October 13, 2012

Good children's books about death are The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst and Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie DePaola. I agree that for the most part, four-year-olds want, and will accept, reassurance that they won't die for a long time.
posted by epj at 10:53 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm with DarlingBri. It's easy to over-think and get too complicated, but most likely she wants some reassurance, that she's not going to die and you're not going to die. "Not for a long, long time" goes a long way with a four year old.

I usually then asked what she thought was going to happen. That gives you an entree into where her head is at--is she scared, confused, intrigued, amazed? And you let her lead the conversation until she gets bored, which, at that age, isn't usually long. If she's really chatty, you can give her a simplified version of what you believe, and what some of the religions believe.

I also always say, only half as a joke, that this is what goldfish are for.
posted by looli at 2:29 PM on October 13, 2012

Even though in theory I was raised Catholic my parents were always honest with me about this kind of stuff-- where do we go when we die? "Nobody really knows."
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:21 PM on October 13, 2012

You could take a look at this book: "Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children"
posted by Dansaman at 10:50 AM on October 14, 2012

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