How Do You Talk to Your Kids About Dying?

Last weekend we all had a great time. Swimming and piano lessons Saturday afternoon followed by dinner out, then all day Sunday at an amusement park/facility with another family, ending with an early supper and kids’ TV show before bed.

So when my youngest daughter, age 5, suddenly asked me at the Monday morning breakfast table, “Daddy, will I die?” I struggled for a response. What can a parent say to that?

My own childhood memories are vague; I can’t recall when I first realized that I would die someday, and that so would everybody else I knew. Probably this occurred to me when my grandmother (my mother’s side) died when I was 9. The death of a family member often triggers this unpleasant realization in children.

When my second grandmother (father’s side) passed away last spring, my children weren’t openly crying. They had only met her twice; we live in Japan, and can only visit my hometown every two years due to travel expenses (increasing as the kids get older).

But my daughters must have retained some memory of that event. Even as a then-3 year old.

“Daddy, are you going to die? Mommy, too?”

Somehow after a happy weekend, my daughter found herself dreaming that everyone in her family had died and left her alone, until she, too, died.

What could I say?

“Yes, honey, that’s true. All of us will die one day,” I said.

Tears began to fill her eyes and her bottom lip quivered.

“Like Great-Grandma?”

“That’s right. Everything dies. But there will always be someone there to love you and be with you.” I hugged her.

Sixteen years ago this week my brother Jared died, two weeks short of his 16th birthday. This year he would have turned 32. But he died. I hadn’t yet met the woman I would marry. My children will never know an Uncle Jared, except through pictures and memories.

And one day, that is how my descendants, family, and friends will know me. Pictures and memories, words and deeds.

One day, I will die. So, too, will my children. One day in the future, my darling five year old will no longer be here.

All is change. Nothing is permanent. It may not be reassuring but it does serve as a reminder that no matter how bad things seem, they won’t be that way forever.

I can’t use these words to help my daughter understand the nature of life. But I can hold her, comfort her, help her feel safe and loved. And by doing so reaffirm my commitment to her and to my family, to do the best I can to see that they become who they want to be.

Life is a precious thing that should be treasured whenever you can. My little girl, munching cornflakes and kicking her legs back and forth while giggling at Shimajiro on my tablet, reminded me of that.

About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
This entry was posted in coming of age, death, depression, family outings, Japan, Japanese society, parenting and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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