Kids get on weird kicks all the time, where they want to talk about the same thing incessantly. Since we moved from the city to the burbs, my kid’s thing has been death. And farting. My kid’s two things have been death and farting. And peeing outdoors. Among my kid’s many weird things have been death, farting, and peeing outdoors…
But I digress. We were talking about death. And have been, a lot. This comes up in 2 main contexts: squished or no longer moving insects, and warning him against doing dangerous things that could, in his words, “make me dead.” When a family friend’s mother recently died, it became slightly more concrete with people.
Because we don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t want to shield him from the idea of death. I’m hoping (in an age-appropriate way) to help him understand what it means, and that it’s a natural part of life. Our current working definition of death is “sometimes someone gets very sick, or hurt, or just old, and their body just wears out and stops working. When that happens, they can’t do anything anymore. It’s like going to sleep and not waking up.”
So far, this has sufficed to explain things without visibly terrifying him. But, man, do I feel like we’re walking a tightrope. I want him to understand the basic concept and its implications enough not to do reckless things. But no one wants to get a preschooler preoccupied with the idea of dying. That kind of stuff can really haunt a kid.
I think back to my religious days, when it would have been so easy to say “our friend’s mommy went to heaven.” Easy, but so much less honest. And, in a real way, so devaluing of the loss. When you accept that there isn’t another world beyond where we’ll be reunited, it makes the finality of death horribly tangible. But it also challenges you to value the one and only life the deceased had to live, and how they lived it. And to live your one and only life as richly and presently as possible.