Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Explaining Death to a 3 Year Old

Three days ago, while Em and Or and I were driving around in the car, we passed by a cemetery.

 “Mama, what’s that?” Em asked.

 “You mean all those rocks?” I said, buying myself a few seconds to come up with an age-appropriate-for-a-three-year-old explanation. 

“Yeah, the rocks.” Em said.

“Well, Em, when people grow up to be very old, they go to sleep for a very, very, very long time, and they just keep dreaming forever and ever. And so those rocks are where people are sleeping for a very very long time.”

It’s the best I could come up with, honestly. I know my explanation doesn’t take into account the deaths of young people, and the whole dreaming thing is not exactly scientifically sound, but those were the words that came out of my mouth. Em listened to me and seemed to absorb this very new information I had given her about the world.

Yesterday, C and I were driving the kids to the playground, and we passed by another cemetery. 

“Do you remember what mama told you about the rocks, Em?” I asked, curious to see if she had understood any of my weird, spur-of-the-moment definition of death.

“Sleeping,” Em replied. 

And then she added, “when I grow up to be big like mama, I am going to go sleep with the rocks, too!”

She said it in that excited tone that toddlers use when they are eager to do something “grown-up”.

To which I responded by crying, rather uncontrollably. 

Granted, my hormones may have gotten the better of me, but just the thought of Emmy’s beautiful spirit EVER EVER leaving this earth made my heart break way wide open. 

Later in the evening, we learned that our neighbor across the street had just passed away. He lived a hermetic life, and I never actually met him (I only caught glimpses of him a few times). Em was in my arms as we watched police cars arrive and depart from his house throughout the evening. Em didn’t ask any questions, and I didn’t provide any information. I felt like we’d done enough talking about death and dying in 24 hours, and I’d done enough crying for one day.

So here’s my question: What words have you used to explain death to your young (and oh so curious) children?


  1. Voice of Reason (ALB Edition)August 21, 2013 at 9:07 AM

    Ironically, we have had a couple of conversations with Alanna recently about this. The best way we described it (and I *think* she understands) that life is a cycle. Everyone is born, lives the life they choose, and passes away (hopefully much much later in life).

    1. I think that is a great approach. I definitely am going to have to modify my explanation as Em grows older. Once she knows the word "cycle," I may have to borrow your description! :)

  2. I did the same as far as everyone lives and everyone dies (trying to stress old people) but I didn't say anything about what I thought death was. We're not religious but my MIL is and when my FIL died she just said he went to heaven... And I didn't argue. My son was 3 at the time. I think I've said that I just don't know and what some theories are... I did not link it to sleeping though because I was afraid my kids would then be afraid to sleep and I like it when they sleep. ;-)

    1. I love that you were so honest and forthright with your son, about not knowing what death is. I guess I always feel like I have to provide some sort of answer as a parent (which is obviously not the best thing to do in every situation).

      And I hadn't thought about the fact that linking death to sleep might inspire anxiety when it comes to bedtime. Em actually seemed to not be rattled by my answer, but I can see how the same words might make her nervous in the future.

      Your responses are always so wise.