I'm walking my four-year-old daughter Anna home after a playdate and she's filling me in on the details of her day when she blurts out, “You know what Rosalie told me, Mama? Her one grandpa died, and her other grandma died, and her dog, too—she used to have two dogs!”
Death has become a hot topic at our place, and I’m not entirely sure why. A friend of mine died last year, but he wasn't someone Anna knew. Anna's co-parent has attended funerals for extended family members in the past, but Anna didn't know any of them either. She found out that a friend of mine (whom she doesn't actually remember) had two cats (that she’d never met) who died (years ago) and was profoundly disturbed. On the bus, Anna sometimes tells strangers that my father died. He did—25 years ago. Perhaps it's the fact that I lost my father when I was a still a little kid that has stuck with her, but I’m not so sure it’s even that.
A few weeks ago, it hit its peak: Anna was asking question after question about death from the moment she woke up in the morning. She wanted to know if I was going to die. If she was going to die. If her Bubbie was going die. If a man on the street would die because he was smoking. If people could die from cavities. If she would still be a kid when I died.
Around the same time, Anna started complaining about stomachaches. My worry—and assumption—is that these were caused by anxiety, and that the anxiety stems from her newfound realization of mortality.
My child is sensitive, for sure. She won’t watch cartoons that feature characters with “angry faces,” or anything with a “sad or mean part.” I'm honest with her about the world, without bombarding her with difficult truths that could be tough for a four-year-old to understand. Am I supposed to protect her from the reality of death? If I tell Anna not to put a plastic bag over her head, this results in 55 questions about what makes a person stop breathing. If I tell her not to touch the toaster, this leads to a series of questions about electrocution. If I tell her not to put a paper doll in the water because it has dye in it, she screams, “Die, die?!?” And I explain to her that "dye" means ink.
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It's been intense for me as a parent, but it must be even more overwhelming for her as she tries to comprehend it all.
When a librarian we’re friendly with at our local library asks me how Anna is doing, I tell her about Anna’s new obsession with death. She informs me that another parent recently told her that the same was happening with her child—and that it occurred around Remembrance Day. Could this be the catalyst? It could be—and I know it was hard for her to understand—but I also recall her telling me about 60 times that Terry Fox was dead a few months ago when the walk happened.
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The stomachaches have since subsided, and I’m hoping we’re fading out of this death phase, but it’s still concerning.
Have your kids been extra curious about death? How have you handled it?