My five-year-old has started asking difficult questions. Mom, am I going to die? Why do we have to die? Where do we go when we’re dead? Maybe the concept of Heaven was created in order to have a good answer for a five-year-old. I don’t believe in Heaven, but I sure feel like interjecting Heaven when my sweet little boy worries about what will happen to him after death.
I’ve read that it’s a good idea to be honest when children ask these difficult questions. You shouldn’t lie, you shouldn’t avoid their questions, and you shouldn’t launch into a long philosophical or religious explanation. You should give them simple, honest answers based on what you know and believe. You should never tell a child that death is like sleeping, or they might start feeling afraid of going to sleep. You shouldn’t talk about dead people just “going away” either, since this can be very confusing. Children prefer simple, mechanical answers with as few abstract concepts thrown in as possible. It’s also important to make sure that the child knows there is nothing to fear from death. Being dead doesn’t hurt, and dead people don’t feel cold or afraid or tired.
So what you say depends on what you believe. I said that no one really knows what will happen when we die. I believe that being dead doesn’t feel like anything. It’s not like sleeping, and it’s not like being awake. Some people believe that people go to a place called Heaven. I don’t know where he got it from, but my son even asked me if people come back as something different. Somehow he seemed to be aware of the concept of reincarnation. It’s amazing how thoughtful and observant five-year-olds can be.
My son is also worried about the state of the human race. Will we be eradicated off the face of the Earth, just like dinosaurs once were? It is so hard to explain what a long time means to a five-year-old. How do you explain millions and millions of years to someone who thinks waiting for three days is almost an eternity?
Our conversations go something like this:
“Mom? When will people die out? You know, like the dinosaurs?
“I don’t know, honey, but most likely it’s going to be a really, really long time if it happens at all. It probably won’t be during our time or even your kids’ or your grandkids’ time.”
“So is it like ten nights?” he counts his fingers and raises his eyebrows.
“Much longer than that. People have been around for a long, long time, so it’s most likely that we are going to be around for many, many more years.” I don’t mention climate change, nuclear bombs, volcanoes and wars. He’ll have plenty of time to find out about those when he’s older
“Is it like this many nights?” He raises his palms towards me and jabs them back and forth in the air until I tell him to stop.
“No, honey. People have been around for so long that you’d need to be doing that for years. It’s such a long time that it’s really hard to understand.”
“But I don’t want to die.”
“People usually die only when they’re really, really old.” Usually.
“And I’m just a child!” His face brightens.
“That’s right, honey. You have so many more years left to live.”
I hope my answers will abate his fears. And I hope I’m not lying and we all really do have many, many more years to live.
Talking about death to a kid this age is a balancing act between honesty and reassurance. I choose to err on the side of reassurance. No five-year-old should have to bear his own mortality like we adults do.
Childhood should be a time of magic, possibilities, superheroes and unicorns. Not death, natural disasters, war and mass shootings. We shouldn’t lie when they ask, but there’s no need to be too brutal about it.
Surely reality can wait just a little longer?