She Says… Questions and Answers

My preschooler is in that adorable, filterless 3 year old stage where he asks every question that pops into his hardworking little brain. His questions are innocent, completely free of judgement and uncomplicated by the intricacies of political correctness, what is appropriate and what others might think. They can also be unexpectedly, mindblowingly wise.

A few days ago we unintentionally fell down the rabbit hole of discussing death, dying, burial and the afterlife when we drove past a cemetery. We drive by it all the time, but this particular day, Owen decided to ask a question that in his mind was probably quite simple. Surprise! It really wasn’t simple at all.

What are those stones out there?

It was one of those moments I knew that I should give him the straight answer in as few words as possible. My head was swimming with the right words to say. He had no idea that I wanted to tell him about death and religion and my personal philosophy on life after death and souls vs. bodies… all he asked about were those stones. Of course we will have these conversations some day, but right now he is only 3.

And he was only asking about the stones.

Still, I feel compelled to give him the “truth” (well, my version of the truth at least), and perhaps a glimmer of the larger conversation, for when he is ready to talk about the story behind the stones.

I told him the stones were called gravestones. That they marked a place where a person’s body was put in the ground after they died. And then I waited. I waited for the follow-up questions.

Why are they under there? Under the ground?
Can they breathe under there?
Just Mommies and Daddies, right? Not kids?
What about dogs?
How did they GET there?
Can I see them put someone down there?
Why do some people go under the ground and other people don’t?

I answered each one matter-of-factly. You know, after pausing for a moment to let my heart break into a million pieces when he asked if there were kids buried there as well.

And then, as with so many other things at 3 years old, we turned the corner and the conversation was over. We moved on to talking about what kind of yogurt he wanted to pick out at the grocery store.

Phew. I think I avoided totally screwing up our first conversation about death.

But I know it’s not the last. I also know that the conversation about death almost always boils down to a conversation about religion. My own philosophy about religion is that I’m not going to choose it for my kid. He will have to make his own decision. My plan, if you can call it that, since in some ways it is just a very theoretical game of hot potato, is to educate him about what lots of different people believe, and leave it up to him to decide what he believes once he has all of the information. Benjamin and I will tell him what we believe, but I refuse to tell him what is “the truth”, because in my opinion, truth is in the eye of the beholder. This all sounds well and good, except that it makes some of these tricky conversations even trickier. There are a lot of unknowns.

We recently got into a conversation about church when we wanted to Skype with my sister and her kids, but they couldn’t do it on Sunday morning because they were at church.

What is church? Can I go there? Why do some people go there? What is God?

Tricky.

Unfortunately this is one thing I won’t be able to Google my way out of.

Benjamin and I will have to come up with answers to each of these questions that align with our own beliefs and how we want to bring up our boys. While no one can give me those exact answers, and I’m certain we all approach these questions differently, I’m curious: When did your kids start asking about death/religion/sex/other loaded topics? How did you answer them? Are there any resources out there that address what level of an answer to give to your kid at each age/stage of development?

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8 responses to “She Says… Questions and Answers

  1. Exactly one year ago today my daughter learned of death. My father-in-law, her “Grampy,” passed away from lung cancer in his home with my husband, mother-in-law, Olivia, and me surrounding him. It was a really disturbing situation, even for and adult, but Olivia seemed relatively unphased by the experience. She said goodbye to him (he’d been unconscious for quite some time at that point…maybe up to two weeks, as I recall) and that she loved him, and held his hand as his pauses between his next breath were longer and longer, and finally stopped. She went to bed (easily, and without nightmares–though I can’t say the same for me or my husband) and we didn’t really discuss it until two days later at the funeral. Obviously he was dressed in his casket with a few momentos surrounding his body we wanted buried with him. Then she asked if he was sleeping. I said, “Well, honey, it does look like he’s sleeping, but it’s not sleep. Grampy passed away, which means his eyes will never open again and he’ll never be able to talk to or play with us again, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t always with you if you want him to be. Grampy loves you very much, and that never goes away. If you want to talk to Grampy, you can. Whatever you hear or feel in your heart is his way of communicating with you.” She asked us where he was going, and we told her the truth. That his body was going into the ground forever. Grampy was very sick, and he could finally rest now that he wasn’t sick anymore. She seemed to be satisfied with those answers, and even provided us a lot of comfort when we cried about the loss.
    We’re not particularly religious, so we didn’t get into discussions about a possible afterlife. I recognize the comfort it brings most people, but like you I want my children to make their own decisions without much of my own input.
    I think it’s a good idea to relax about these things. You know how adaptable kids are, and Owen seems intelligent enough to recognize most difficult subjects. I doubt you’ll scar him by explaining (lightly) about what happens to us when we die. From personal experience: it will all be okay.

  2. oof..yes, very tough. We also had to deal with explaining death early to the girls as they lost 3 grandparents in a fairly short amount of time. And then a young (14 years old) second cousin. Now that one was extremely tough seeing as we had explained that mostly old people die. I find books geared toward children extremely helpful. I bought “When Dinosaurs Die” for the girls when their grandfather died and we sat down and read it together. It is a very strait forward, lay it out on the table kind book so if you ARE bringing up your children in a certain religion I’m not sure it’s the right one (didn’t quite work for us for this reason). But it might work very well for you so I’d recommend it. Books, for me, are a great way to open up a dialogue. (Although it sounds like Owen has no problem with that!) They always help me figure out exactly what is age appropriate. And I suppose that’s the key isn’t it? Not telling them more than what they need to know at that age..but leaving room for more questions. Sounds like you dealt with Owen’s question perfectly!

  3. @onesosmall, Thank you for sharing that story! That is very interesting that your daughter seemed pretty unphased by the parts of death that many of us find most difficult. Kids are amazing that way.

    @Anonymous, Books to get the kid-level conversation started are a great idea. I haven’t read any yet myself, so I’ll definitely check out the dinosaur one you recommend. Thank you!

  4. mom to a 4 year old girl

    we unfortunately had a tragic situation last year at my daughter’s school where her classmate passed away in an accident. Obviously, this was a very unique situation (and so tragic) in so many ways.. She asked where he was and still mentions him at times. We told her he had to go to heaven and luckily haven’t had to talk about it much since, but sometimes it will come up. Every family handled the situation differently but we all did the best we could. It definitely made me think a lot about talking to her about this and how to handle it as she gets older and it makes more sense to her.

  5. Last summer one of my good friends had a baby who died within 9 hours of birth. She and her husband had a party/memorial this past summer on what would have been her first birthday, and Ethan INSISTED on going with me (she is one of his favorite babysitters and was desperate to see her, her house, etc.) I knew that there would be tons of questions, but I decided we’d be dealing with the questions about death sooner or later, and this way I was kind of “in control” of it (as much as one can be!) I was FLOORED by the thoughtful questions that came out of his mouth, and to this day he will bring it up if something makes him think of it (hearing her name, seeing a pink balloon, etc.) But he wasn’t scared or sad, he was just thoughtful and sweet. I think honesty is the best policy and also simple answers. Actually, we recently came around to a conversation about divorce (through a series of questions from him about marriage) and I thought that one was harder to explain!

  6. Tuck this one away for when its needed: Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. It does include God, and heaven, but it is the sweetest book I’ve ever seen about the death of a pet. Be warned: I’ve read it three times (and without the loss of a pet) and bawled my eyes out each time!

  7. Ahh, those loaded questions. RE: the “where do babies come from” question, there’s a book called “Amazing You! Getting Smart about your Private Parts” by Gail Saltz that we purchased. It is good and tells them how the baby gets in there without going into details on the logistics. When I got pregnant, we knew those questions would come so I bought it to have on hand and sure enough, we had to pull it out. I also bought the book “Talking to your Kids about Sex” by Laura Berman for me. It doesn’t have as much for this young age, but I figure it will be a good resource over the years.
    Now, RE: death, our situation is certainly more an extreme, but we have had to deal with that a lot since I did lose our 2nd daughter 32 weeks into my pregnancy. She was stillborn in June and so with Emmy (who is 4) we had to talk to her a LOT about death. She had already experienced losing my grandmother at the age of 3, and she remembers her and I find she talks about her now more, too, since we lost Sara Hawley. There have obviously been a lot more questions now. We had her cremated so we’ve talked about that and how some people are buried. As others have stated, she has handled it as well as we could expect, kids are resilient. She is sad, and still talks about it frequently. She’s much more blunt about it (she will willingly announce to people that her baby sister died). The funeral home gave us a book called “Katie the Lady Bug” that has been a good one on grief. Under the circumstances, we have had her speak to a children’s therapist and she has talked to her preschool teachers and her Sunday School teachers as well and told us what we may expect, so they help us keep an eye on her.

    When it comes to religion, we are religious though certainly with a very progressive lean to our theology. It is the community that is important to us, as are those traditions (singing familiar songs, reciting familiar prayers) that are important to us and teach us where we come from and give us an identity. We of course talk about other religions and faiths and want her to have a broad world view, but we also want her to believe in something, even if her views change and evolve as she grows, which we expect for them to, just as ours have. When it comes to talking about losing her sister, it does seem to help her to believe that she’s in a place where she is happy and we may see her again. We don’t have all the answers, and she is ok with “I don’t know.”

    There is a National Geographic “Holidays Around the World” by Deborah Heiligman series that we have the Easter book for and I just ordered the Christmas and Hanukkah ones for E. The Easter one is really good and has great pictures and talks about how people around the world celebrate the holiday (without advocating any religion or tradition).

    Good luck. If you find any good resources I look forward to hearing what they are!

  8. @mom to a four year old girl, Oh that is so, so sad. I can’t even imagine talking about that kind of loss to a small child.

    @Carly, Great point — lots of tricky things to discuss 🙂

    @Jess, SOB, I don’t even want to think about the day that we will need that book, but I know I will appreciate your recommendation when we get there.

    @Beth, Thank you so much for these titles!!! This is extremely helpful and exactly what I’m looking for. I am so, deeply sorry to hear about the loss of your daughter. I am so impressed by your perspective and openness to discuss the tragedy with Emmy.

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