My mother-in-law takes my 3 year-old son at his word.…
A classmate named Sarah recently told my four year-old son that people get old and then they die. My son mentioned this casually while we were getting into the car later that day after dinner. It didn’t seem to worry him; he was just relaying the information to me in case I had not heard about death and dying.
I was slightly stunned. While we’ve talked extensively about the death of animals (our two elderly dogs died last year), I just haven’t gotten around to telling him that humans die too.
Honestly, I have been hesitant to burst his bubble in many ways. But, he’s not three years-old anymore and he’s bound to start learning about life from his schoolyard peers, especially the girls who seem to be more advanced and full of advice at this age.
I’m hesitant. I don’t want to trouble him with the realities of life and all it entails. This is a boy who often spends his time singing happily in his playroom and enjoying himself with toys or cartoons. He is such a happy child. I feel like I am slowly stamping out his joy when I have to introduce bad news or weighty topics. But, if girls like Sarah are going to beat me to the punch on topics such as death, I better get with it and talk with my son about things that matter.
Surely there are age-appropriate ways to discuss death and dying. After strapping him into his car seat the other night, I tried to get him to talk more about what Sarah told him. He reiterated that people who get old would surely die. But, he didn’t seem to equate that news with the fact that he – or I – would die someday. He hadn’t connected all the dots. It was merely new information that he’d received and was, in turn, sharing with me. He often does this.
I tried to summon some words of wisdom for him. This was, after all, the day he first heard about death. It seemed significant to me. So, I told him that when we die we get to go to heaven and be with God. That’s the best I could do on short notice. “I’d rather stay down here”, he said. Fair enough.
In recent years, my father, sister and beloved dog have all died. It’s been interesting learning to grieve and how to move on with life. Death is so complicated, and so simple. I know I can never shield my son from the pain it brings. I wish he didn’t have to experience it – but he will. His pets will die, his grandparents will die, young friends may die, and one day his parents will die. There’s no stopping it. For now, I will incrementally have these discussions with him.
He knows that our dogs are in heaven. We used to read a book called “Dog Heaven” to him so he would understand. The book is light on pain and suffering, of course. In it, all the dogs sleep on clouds and God gives them lots of treats. It doesn’t seem to be a bad deal for the dead dogs. But, what of those left behind?
I need to make a vow to keep my son up-to-date on subjects that matter. My first instinct is to shield him from anything ugly or painful. But, I realize he is going to hear things. I also realize there are ways to keep it age-appropriate. I am the expert on all things related to him and I’m sure he can handle little doses of reality at the ripe old age of four.