I knew they would find out sooner or later, so I decided not to waste any time.
“Girls,” I called quietly and sat down with them on the kitchen steps. “I have some sad news.” They exchanged glances, almost smiling in that way kids do when they know they’re about to hear something that requires a certain somber response. A foreshadowing of juvenile schadenfreude. Or like adults who laugh at funerals. I told them our neighbor’s dog—a dog they often helped take care of and feed when its owners were out of town—had died yesterday.
They maintained that strange mask of sadness, that contorted expression kids wear when they are conscious something “sad” is happening and they feel self-conscious about their response. My four-year-old has no experience with death yet. I had to remind her several times that she wouldn’t see the dog anymore, that she wouldn’t go over to feed him again. I felt compelled to drive home the point: death is permanent. He wasn’t coming back.
Her cry was sort of fake and forced, although I knew she was genuinely sad. But she wasn’t overcome by grief.
She asked casually as we ascended the steps to get an afternoon snack, “Do people die too?”
“Yes, honey,” I replied gently. “Everybody dies eventually.” Of course she knew people died, we’d mentioned it in passing before.
And then she asked. The question I’ll never forget.
“Am I going to die?”
I couldn’t lie. I knew that no matter what, I couldn’t lie. So I took a deep breath. “Yes, Sophie. Everybody dies. But you’re not going to die for a long long time,” I whispered. A lie. I did lie. I had to lie. You have to lie, right?
And then the sobbing began. Deep, wracking sobs that shook her whole tiny body. And I couldn’t stop myself; I cried along with her.
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” I soothed, holding her tightly against my body. “You’re going to live a long time, I promise. You’ll live a long life, you’ll live to be an old lady. You’re not going to die for a long time.” I knocked on wood furiously and quietly as I spoke, over and over, a talisman against jinxing our family with tragic and ironic loss.
“We won’t be able to eat anymore?” she bawled. “Or go to school?”
I was speechless. And I knew that I would remember this moment forever, the moment when I unknowingly opened the door to something larger than I expected.
“You will, honey, you will!” I reassured frantically. “You’re not going to die soon, you don’t need to be sad! You don’t need to be scared!”
“I don’t want to die before my next birthday,” my inconsolable child, my baby, wailed.
“You won’t,” I said firmly, “You’ll live to be old. Older than Mommy, older than Grammy, as old as Grandma Myrtle!”
I kept knocking on wood, every few sentences. I couldn’t stop myself. “Our bodies may die, but I believe that what’s inside our hearts, our souls, our spirits, they live forever,” I told her, tapping my heart. “And that means that we’ll always be together in that way.”
She placed her hands over her heart, mirroring my gesture. “I want to die right by you!” she declared ferociously, and I squeezed her tighter as we wept together.
How do you tell your child not to fear death when you’re not sure what you believe yourself? Our family is not religious, but I do believe something. I didn’t lie when I told her that I believe our souls go on after we leave our bodies behind. She had more questions that I couldn’t answer: “Will we ever see our house again? Will we be alive again?”
What do I tell her? I could talk about reincarnation and infinite energy and human interconnectedness. I could talk about heaven or past lives or ghosts but the truth is I don’t know exactly what I believe. So I told her the only thing I do believe: We don’t need to be afraid of dying. Part of us will live forever. We’ll always be together.
I lied to her, though. I am all too aware of that fact, paralyzed by my fearful superstition, worrying that my empty promise of long life will come back to haunt us in the cruelest of ways, wanting to believe that no, it was compassionate what I told her.
She cried and cried, as if she had been given the worst news ever. Which, really, she had. She’d been told the deepest secret about Life: that it ends. She learned that one day she would die. That she wouldn’t eat, or go to school (sob), or see her home again.
I’m sorry that this isn’t an article full of books you should read to your child, or things to say, or what not to say. I didn’t know what to say. I was caught off guard. I didn’t know she would mourn this truth the way she did. Sometimes you don’t know how to talk to a preschooler about death, you just do it. You share their pain. You answer the questions you can. You tell them there’s so much we don’t know. You cry with them.