Questions of Life and Death

Big Brother is 4 years old, although I have been known to say that he’s 4 going on 54. He’s outgoing and gregarious, and has a tendency to walk up to complete strangers and talk to them about the weather. (As a note: I don’t do either of these things.)

He’s loves to make noise (he even talks in his sleep) , he tells jokes about underwear and bottoms, and wants to be a super-hero when he grows up. (He used to want to be a policeman, but they don’t wear capes.) He loves jigsaw puzzles, colouring books, dress-ups, hide-and-seek, pillow fights, football games and running across open fields. He’s loud, competitive, and prone to running into walls, falling out of trees, and tripping over his own feet.

But he’s also incredibly thoughtful and sensitive. I don’t know if that’s normal for a 4-year-old boy. Maybe some of you other parents can let me know.

A few months ago, I took Big Brother and Baby to visit my parents for a week. (Sadly, Husband had to stay home and work.) One night, Nana was reading Big Brother a bedtime story when she called me into his room. “You better talk to him,” she said. 

When I went in, poor little BB was almost in tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked, scooping him up to snuggle on my lap.

He looked at me seriously, sniffing away his tears and said, “You’re not going to love me anymore.”

I stayed my urge to give him a general reassurance and asked, “Why do you think that?”

The tears started flowing freely as he said, “Because you think I’m perfect the way I am. But I’m growing up. And when I grow up, you won’t love me anymore.”

That’s the kind of sensitive my little boy is. It’s not always easy to handle these moments, but I’m pretty good at understanding how he feels. He’s not too different from me as a kid.

But sometimes he surprises me. Sometimes, I’m just not prepared for his questions and concerns. And those are the times I learn how well I cope under pressure. There’s no “come back later” option when you’ve got a distraught 4-year-old on your lap.

A few nights ago, we were chatting and eating at the dinner table, and Big Brother said out of nowhere, “Poppy died, because he’s not part of our family anymore.”

Conversation stopped. Cutlery was put down. Husband and MiL looked from BB to me. “Why do you say that?” I asked gently.

“Daddy said that Poppy died.” 

I nodded, and reached out to take BB’s hand. “That’s right, Sweetie. Poppy died a long time ago. He was Daddy’s Daddy. But he’s still part of our family, even though he died.”

Big Brother looked up at me with tears in his eyes and asked, “Am I going to die? I don’t want to die.”

Nothing prepares you for that.

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13 Comments

Filed under Life With Kids

13 responses to “Questions of Life and Death

  1. Oh, wow. That is heart-wrenching! I am seriously fighting the urge to cry. I don’t have kids, but I have nieces and a nephew I’m more than close to. If they asked me something like that, I don’t know what I would do other than cry.

  2. Best I could do with that answer was a lame, “I don’t know that you will. There might be a cure for it by then.” Years later my daughter told me it was a good answer. She said It let her and her brother defer the question to a much later date at least. Or at least count on probably seeing tomorrow.

    • It’s hard, isn’t it? Not just the question itself (although that’s tricky enough), but when it just comes out of nowhere, you have to go with your first instinct. I guess the best result you can ask for is that your kids feel that it’s a good answer.

  3. Husband

    Jo handled everything perfectly. I wouldn’t have said anything differently. She explained that, eventually, everyone dies but that he wouldn’t have to die for a long long time. It was such a sweet moment. I have the best wife and the best kids ever.

  4. Daughter (also 4) asked me that exact question a few months ago. Took a few moments to come up with an answer but I told her that yes every one dies, even me, even her but that we are going to die a long long time into the future and there is no point worrying about it. We have been very lucky that we haven’t had a death in the family since the kids were born but with 3 great grandparents now into their 80’s, a next door neighbour with cancer and a dog that is going on for 14 yrs old I don’t think it will be far away – I am not religious but I can totally understand why even non-religious people use the ‘with god’ concept at makes it all a little less tragic

    • Thanks so much for sharing Jody. We haven’t had a death in the family/extended family since the boys were born either. Poppy died a good 6 years before Big Brother was born. Maybe 4 is just the age that kids start thinking about things like life and death. I’m glad to hear that you essentially said the exact same thing I did. Makes me feel like I did the right thing. 🙂

  5. You’re right, nothing does prepare you for that. Even when you explain, it’s hard when something bad actually happens. When Dal’s grandmother died the big twins were in the 4th grade. I think it took more than a year for them to really understand what death meant and to be less sad when we talk about her.

    • I can imagine. Fingers crossed I’ve still got a good few years before having to deal with the reality. When Poppy died, Big Brother’s cousin was 4. A few days after the funeral, he got ready to go out and told his Mum it was time to visit Poppy in hospital. Sister-in-Law carefully sat him down and reminded him that Poppy had died, and wasn’t in the hospital anymore. To which Cousin said, “But I didn’t know it was forever!

      Have your twinkies asked the question yet, or is it still to come?

  6. Ouch. How did you answer? B.T. doesn’t ask questions, yet – his words are limited to things like his name for the dog and his favorite food (Cheerios, as it happens, which he calls only “chee” or “chee chee”), so such deep existential thinking is as yet beyond his capacity to express with language.

    • The time between only saying a few words, and asking difficult questions, seems to ve very short. You’ll be there before you know it.

      As to what I said, I have an age-appropriate-honesty policy when it comes to BB. I don’t ever lie or avoid telling him the truth, but I only tell him as much of the truth as he’s able to understand and that he’s specifically asking about. So my answer was basically, “Everybody dies one day, but you’re not going to die for a long, long time. It’s normal and natural for everyone to die when they get very old. Animals die too, and so do plants, and everything that’s alive. But you’re not going to die for ages and ages.” To which he asked, “For a hundred years?” And I said, “Yes, for about a hundred years.”

      That seemed to satisfy him, and he thought about it for a minute and then said, “I didn’t know that plants died, too.” Then he moved on, and has been fine ever since. I’ll answer the “what happens after people die” part of the question when he asks it. 🙂

  7. What a perfect response. Great advice for me in a few years! Some things you’re never prepared for, I guess.

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