What Happens When You Tell A 4-Year-Old About Death

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“I don’t want to die!”

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My son let his spoon crash onto the floor, his morning Cheerios spilling through the cracks of the hardwood, and cried in a painful wail. He was 4 years old, and he had just come face to face with the inevitability of his own mortality.

We’d let slip the secret that everyone dies one day. We’d just made a visit to his great-grandfather, who was being kept alive through an oxygen mask attached to his face, and we’d carelessly let the truth out.

“Even me?” our son asked.

We didn’t want to lie. “Not for a long, long, time,” his mother told him. “But – yes. Even you.”

Up until that moment, we didn’t really know if he understood what death was. He’d seen bugs get swatted and villains defeated on TV, and he’d even yelled out that he was going to kill the bad guys in a few rowdy play sessions — but we weren’t sure if he knew what any of it meant.

He cried for 10 minutes straight after he found out. It wasn’t like any tantrum we’d seen before. He shut down completely, dropping the food from his hand, and started wailing with more misery than he’d ever shown. It took 10 full minutes to calm him down enough to get him to curl into the fetal position in a bed, his mother’s arms wrapped around him, and he still wasn’t talking.

You can’t tell your child to calm down, that’s it not such a big deal, or that everything will be okay.

He knew what it meant. We hadn’t taught him — but somehow, instinctively, he understood.

When a child realizes that death is slowly encroaching, it’s a different type of problem. It’s not like dealing with a frustrated toddler whose upset he can’t play with his favorite toy, or giving kisses and Band-Aids to a boy who scraped his knee. You can’t tell your child to calm down, that’s it not such a big deal, or that everything will be okay.

Death is a real problem, and it’s not one that mommy and daddy can explain away. It’s something inevitable, terrifying, and impossible to understand. There are full grown adults who would cry just as hard as our son did if they had to face the reality.

We tried to explain it to him, but nothing seemed to get through.

“Death is part of life,” we told him. “It happens to everyone. It’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s just something we have to accept.”

He didn’t move. He didn’t say a word. He just stared.

We tried telling that it was “just like before you were born” next. “That wasn’t so scary. You weren’t alive for a long time before you were born, and that wasn’t scary.”

“You’ll go to heaven,” we told him, “and everyone you know and love with be there, and you’ll be happy all the time.”

Our son just laid still and quiet, holding back the little tears welling on the edges of his eyes. He was breathing in hard bursts, trying so hard to be strong. We were trying — but somehow it felt like everything we said just made it worse.

Up until that moment, we didn’t really know if he understood what death was.

We didn’t reach him on purpose. In the end, it was thoughtless, nostalgic rambling that got through to him. I had been trying to tell him that he probably wouldn’t die for a hundred years when I stumbled onto a thought that connected.

“Do you know how long 100 years is?” I asked him. “Well, right now you’re 4 years old. And – do you remember when you turned 3 and we went to that place with Pooh Bear on the wall?”

He did not.

“That was one year ago,” I told him. “And everything you can remember is in that one year. You’re going to live for as long as you can even remember being alive – and then you’ll just turn 5.”

I held up 5 fingers in front of him, but it didn’t seem to mean much to him. I wasn’t even sure he could see me.

“You’re going to get to do so much,” I said.

“You’re going to go to big boy school. You’re going to have your first day of school, and Mama and Dada are going to hold you so tight before you get on the bus, and I’ll have to help Mama not cry. And she probably will cry anyway.

“And you’ll have your first teacher. And she’ll learn your name, and you’ll get your own seat, and you’ll learn so much. And you’ll come home every day and tell us what you learned, and we’re going to be so proud of you.

“And you’ll have a best friend. And you’ll play together, and you’ll have playdates and your first sleepover. You’ll be a little scared sleeping at a friend’s house for the first time, but you’ll be tough and you’ll do it.

“And you’ll play baseball. Not just in our backyard – you’ll do it on a real baseball diamond, with all kinds of people watching you, and you’ll hit the ball so far. And you’ll run around the bases all the way to home, and you’ll get your first run and everyone will cheer for you. And they’ll all say that you’re so great, and Mama and I will tell everybody that you’re our boy and they’ll be so impressed.”

The knowledge that he will one day die is a part of him now, and it’s changed him.

I caught myself for a second, wrapped up in my own wave of sentimentality, and realized I’d stopped talking. Then I said, “And then you’ll just be 6 years old. And you’ll do so much more.”

My son was listening now. He wasn’t talking yet, but he was looking at me he wasn’t crying anymore. All 3 of us were quiet for a long time. And then he spoke.

“Maybe when I’m 6 years old,” he said, “I’ll hit the ball so hard it’ll go all the way to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.”

“I bet you will,” I told him. “And I’m going to be so proud of you.”

My son is still afraid of death. The knowledge that he will one day die is a part of him now, and it’s changed him.

Life, though, is a celebration. It’s a thousand amazing moments, some so beautiful and meaningful that they could make a grown man cry. And in that bed, cuddling together with the 2 people who make me happier than anything in the whole experience, we were sharing one of many more to come.

We were quiet for a long time, all 3 of us thinking. Then my son spoke.

“Dada?” He said. “What else am I going to do?”

Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher and father whose been featured on Yahoo, Parent.co, and The Onion.

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