Death, Dying and processing things as a five year old.
August 30, 2014 6:08 PM   Subscribe

Help me talk to my five year old child about death age appropriately. We've talked about Fred Rogers. We've talked his feelings. We've talked about what he knows about it. He's concerned because his great-aunt died about a month ago, and now he wants to make sure we'll always be there. The problem is, in very short time his grandfather, my dad, won't.

So without belaboring it. This evening I answered a whole host of questions on - will I help him learn to drive? Where do we go? Will I die? Will he die? What happens when we die? When will I die? How many is 100?

We talked about living long lives, eating healthy, taking care of ourselves. We talked about people being real sick (his aunt). We talked about and watched Mr. Rogers talks about death - which was riveting and good for him (he relaxed a ton while watching it). We finished on a high note, talking about hot air balloons, helium balloons, ionized particles, sublimation, thunderous clouds, wind kicking up at night, how to navigate a hot air balloon and a host of historical early aeronautical events... but he went to bed somewhat back in the 'Don't die Dad' mode that he skewed post-dinner conversation towards. This would all be fine.

Except his grandfather is dying. As in, I ignored a phone call from the hospital during this conversation because that's how much my son needed me. And while we don't need to rush to that tomorrow, its looking like the chances of that happening with in a year are an increasing possibility. He hasn't gotten to see his grandfather in about a year because we don't live particularly nearby and certain things with his health are problematic for encountering a five year old. He may know I'm on edge over this, but he's not acknowledged that he knows.

As a side note: We're not really a religious family, although he knows that we prayed for god to take his aunt's pain, and eventually thanked him for her.

So yeah. This topic isn't going away after tonight. When he broaches it again, what might I add? What might I tweak? And yeah, I could write previous previous previous - because reading prior threads somehow still doesn't cover it.
posted by Nanukthedog to Human Relations (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I might try to add in a secular afterlife bit -- that people you love will always be with you in your memories, so it's like you can still talk to them whenever you want to.

This page on Talking to Children is focused on cancer, but could certainly apply to most terminal illnesses.

The big thing I have found with children's grief that adults tend to overlook is that young children often blame themselves, deeply, and the explanations they have for why it's their fault are often rooted in magical thinking that parents sometimes dismiss too quickly. It can be easy to brush aside the belief that a young child killed his great-aunt because he disobeyed his parents the night he died, but for the child, that belief is real and strong, and responding with patience and compassion just as if the belief were plausible can be really helpful for the child.
posted by jaguar at 6:26 PM on August 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

For some kids, it seems like there's not much for this except actually dealing with death as it happens. My daughter is eleven now, but when she was five, she sounded a lot like your son.

You might want to add that there are plans for what happens if you die. Which sounds awful, but my daughter found it comforting to know that if somewhere were to happen to me and I was dead or in the hospital, she'd go to stay with people she knows and loves, and that there's a whole network of people who are willing and able to help her. She wanted to be reassured that she wasn't going to be alone, you know?

I'd also caution that for my daughter, at least, it was very easy to get into a feedback loop where she was upset and scared, and I was effectively validating that fear--and then she was becoming more upset, because I'd just agreed that there was something to be upset about. So it sounds mean, but I'd be wary of letting him dwell too much on this--I finally had to tell my daughter that we couldn't talk about it when she was upset. When she was upset, we could sit together and try to do things that would make her calm down, but we couldn't talk about what death meant, or how it worked, or really any related subjects, because the conversation just spiraled. If he's already in crisis mode about it, getting him out of crisis mode should be the first priority. I did a lot of "I'm sad, too. Do you want to bake cookies/go walk the dog/take a nap?" Then when she wasn't freaking out, I'd revisit the conversation.
posted by MeghanC at 6:38 PM on August 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Kindergarteners want to know who will take care of them -- give them a long, long, long list. ("Grandma and grandpa, and then Auntie Em, and then Uncle Joe, and then our BFF Mary ...") We have even explained about how we have a will, and how it lists all the people who would take care of him. It seems morbid but he finds it reassuring, to know that there is an actual list that people take very seriously and that it is The Law.

It is also okay for kids that age to be sad and anxious about death. Death is sad and anxious. You don't want him to have a complex about it, but it's okay for him to know that you feel sad about it, and that while it hurts less with time, it is not a thing you will ever be un-sad about.

We were just at a funeral for a friend's mom (this week), and her son is 5, and I lost my grandma at that same age, and he had a lot of questions. And I said to him that I never got less sad -- I am still sad today! -- but I think about feeling sad less often. And that it was okay to feel sad. And that it was okay to laugh and feel happy, and she would be happy that he was happy. But that it was okay to feel sad because you loved someone a lot and now they were gone, and that was an okay thing to feel sad and cry about. You don't want to make it weird or scary, but sometimes kids need to know that it's okay to feel sad for a long time and it's okay not to have answers. Death IS sad; you can't make it un-sad. But you can help them understand it as a part of life, where it's okay to be sad.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:40 PM on August 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

One thing that helped my son, since we aren't religious,was to talk about how your body turns back into atoms when you die, and those atoms become trees and grass and animals and everything else. My mom, his great grandma, and a cat died all in the same year...we had lots of discussions. The book Parenting Beyond Belief has some similarly good tips.
posted by emjaybee at 6:46 PM on August 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

My nearly-6-year-old is obsessed with death right now and constantly asks questions. We had a dog that died 4 years ago and have a close young friend dying right now, but most of this he picked up from *life* (and TV).

And the questions go on and on... when your body goes in the ground, do you become a zombie right away (thanks Plants Vs. Zombies)? If you get enough medicine will you come back alive? Yesterday he was drawing a picture for our dying friend and said "I hope that this picture makes her come back alive."

Right how he thinks everyone dies at age 100.

For us, the best thing is just to let him asks the questions over and over again and for us to give them thoughtful answers. And to tell him that he and we won't die for a really really really really long time.
posted by k8t at 6:49 PM on August 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your public library's children's section will probably have a bibliotherapy section. This will include books written to help kids understand death. Checking there might be helpful.
posted by naturalog at 6:54 PM on August 30, 2014

Yes, as others have said, kids tend to be very concrete thinkers, and he may be imagining himself still being five years old when you die at 100, and so walking him through the actual practical realities of what would happen if you died right now, including all the back-up plans, is very likely to be helpful.

It might be helpful to you to think of his anxiety and curiosity as less about death, which is probably rather abstract for him, and more about his own security and safety, and gear your reassurance toward that.
posted by jaguar at 7:01 PM on August 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

This eulogy given by a physicist might give you some ideas on how to explain things... Especially where we go/what happens type questions.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:02 PM on August 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I know you've looked at other threads, but just to make sure, these threads seem pretty useful and relevant: one about a 5-year-old who's obsessed with death, and one about atheist parents talking about death with their kids.
posted by John Cohen at 7:16 PM on August 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

When it is someone older who dies, I have always told my children this:

Uncle was very sick and very tired. He had done everything that he was supposed to do on this earth and God looked at him and said, "Come on home, you don't need to suffer any more." And then his soul (the part that made him alive and who he was) left his body and went to be with God, leaving his body behind because he doesn't need it any more. When we bury the body, we aren't burying Uncle because he is no longer in his body, he is with God, and he doesn't hurt any more.

I always stress that he left because he had finished up with everything that he was supposed to do.

Don't use words like rest, napping, or sleeping when referring to the dead because this can cause some children to fear going to sleep.
posted by myselfasme at 10:07 PM on August 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

My great aunt died back in January and we got similar-ish rafts of question. I'm pretty matter of fact and answered them accordingly. Seemed to go fine.
posted by jpe at 3:31 AM on August 31, 2014

My kids were quite interested in the book, "I Found a Dead Bird," which explores death from several angles.
posted by baseballpajamas at 8:48 AM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

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