A couple of nights ago my husband and I were conversing about aging and death. Specifically about my grandmother who passed away a few years ago. She was 91 and still very sharp mentally – she knew everything that was going on as she was dying. It was painful to watch.
My grandpa, on the other hand, who died a few years before her had dementia so by the time he died it was like we had already lost him long ago. I asked my husband if he thought it was better for your mind or your body to decline first.
Maybe we should have been a little more cautious in our conversation because our six-year-old daughter was in the room and after a few mentions of the word “death” she burst into tears and said, “I don’t want to die!”
I let my husband take the lead on this one. I thought my explanation of death would be too depressing. I don’t believe there’s anything after death. You die and that’s it – you’re gone. But how do you say that to a crying six-year-old?
I said, “Everybody dies. It’s a part of life.” My daughter then said she wants to be a ghost so she can live forever.
Unfortunately, we didn’t really knock down the ghost idea. We really had no idea what to say.
My husband added that it’s important to live your life to the fullest because we will all die one day. I definitely agreed with him on that one and I was hoping that would be my daughter’s main takeaway from the conversation.
My daughter said she’d wish upon a shooting star to be a ghost and then as she left the room she said, “Say goodbye to the real world and hello to the death world.” It was pretty creepy.
I thought I was better prepared for this.
My mother died when I was five so I had to deal with death at a very young age. I remember feeling a lot of confusion. I would ask where my mom was, and no one would answer me. My daughter deserves a better explanation than what I was given – which was no explanation.
So please help me out – what did you tell your kids about death?
Also, my husband never was able to answer my question – would it be better for your mind or your body to decline first? If you feel like answering that I would love to hear it.
I recently lost my mother. She had a whole bunch of physical things going on, and also had dementia. Looking back, she had dementia for at least a decade before she was diagnosed. At the end, she was a mental shell of what she once was. I don’t wish that on anyone–particularly those who have to take care of someone in that state.
In contrast, a few years back, my FIL had a heart attack, got out of the hospital and refused to change his lifestyle, and had another massive heart attack and was gone in 3 months. He was mentally sharp until the end. So much less traumatic for everyone involved.
Speaking of traumatic; your daughter wanting to be a ghost. She doesn’t understand all the ramifications, but I know that gave you the chills. I don’t remember when my kids “got” death; I would say early teens? Before the pandemic, the average child knew only very few deaths.
John Morales says
No children (by choice).
So, can’t answer that other than as a hypothetical, which would be pointless.
Body sustains the mind, not the other way around.
Anecdotally, my wife’s mom died (age 89) but suffered from dementia.
She still went out dancing in her early 80s.
My own mum died (age 84) from accumulated physical decrepitude. Many and severe ailments, but her mind remained sharp as a tack until the very end.
Both were brutal, but I know which made me far sadder.
And I know which I’d rather.
The body lives on long after the mind is gone, but never the other way around.
I mean, knowing you’re in your dotage, that’s one thing.
Knowing you used to be more, that’s a worse one. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowers_for_Algernon).
Not knowing you used to be more, that’s as sad as it can get.
(But, I suppose, it’s not you who suffers that fate)
To circle back to the actual title of your post: we always had foster dogs and foster cats. When you have pets, at some point, they die, usually of some agonizing condition when the regular vet is closed and you can’t find a babysitter, so both of mine spent time at the emergency vet, sometimes there when the only humane thing to do for the animal was euthanasia.
REBECCA WIESS says
In tAthe toddler days we inspected dead bugs and birds and talked about nothing lives forever. In preschool time when a relative died we let him look in the casket. Didn’t make a big deal out of it, and kid spent the funeral service coloring on the floor under my chair ( we sat way in the back). And there were dogs and cats the kid helped bury. Death just naturally flowed in and out the kid’s life. For your daughter, at 6, I would talk simply, directly, and not dwell on it – Everybody dies, for humans not usually for a very long time, and I’d like to live forever too, but then I’d like to fly by waving my hands, and that’s not going to happen, and then we would walk around flapping hands for a few minutes.
Far better for the body to go first, and hopefully fast, otherwise you’re spending a long time being a burden to others with neither of you enjoying it.
I’ve found no good way to deal with it with kids without comforting lies. They are really not ready for the answers when they’re at the point where they start asking questions (though that’s usually a good guide). It was especially hard for one of my daughters and I think she still has trouble with it into adulthood. Talk about the value of love, life experience and relationships. But acknowledge that it’s not forever. For some of us, that’s enough.
I like this quote. It is attributed to Mark Twain, although my half-hearted attempt at confirming that came up empty. I don’t know if a six year old would find it comforting, but maybe?
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
My 4 year old daughter’s brain is grappling with the concept of existence since a few month. She has no problem accepting that she once was inside her mother’s womb, but can’t yet understand that there was a time when she was nowhere and keeps asking ‘where was I then’ when we talk about events before here conception (I usually answer ‘a wish’ or ‘not even an idea yet’ depending on the time frame). My father died last year and she is wondering where he is. We visit the grave, but that doesn’t satisfy the curiosity, she feels that there is more to it (I’m not sure there is, but I know that my father would be very happy to see her playing on the grass around his grave). I don’t think there is a special way to address her questions, obviously her brain needs more input to create the neural pathways and I see no reason to keep that from her when she’s asking for it. Just be patient, empathetic, dependable. As always.
Nick Lane is generally well-thought-of by atheists. He seems to think that death is something that evolved:
“On the face of it, death is a perplexing ‘invention’: natural selection normally acts at the level of individual organisms, and it’s hard to see how my death will benefit me, or what Pacific salmon gain from falling to pieces, or black widow spiders from being cannibalised. But it is equally plain that death is far from accidental, and it certainly evolved for the benefit of individuals (or rather, their selfish genes, in Richard Dawkins’s unforgettable phrase) soon after the dawn of life itself.”
My nearly-four-year-old asked me just the other day if I was going to die. I just said “yes… but not yet”. He then asked if he would die. I said “yes.” He told me that if he was going to die, he’d just do THIS (flailing arm movements) to “the bad guys” so that he didn’t. So, so far he seems to think people only die due to the actions of “bad guys”. He still has all his grandparents, and our only pet, a Mexican milk snake, may well outlive me. I don’t conceal death from him, and it doesn’t seem to bother him. Right now I think he thinks he’s going to live forever. I’m not going to burst that bubble yet.
My children got an extensive education in dying and death. When my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, I happened to be at a career crossroads. I was able to find a temporary job back in my hometown, and we moved into a house adjoining my parents’ backyard in order to help with her care. Our children were ages 3, 5 and 8. They loved their grandmother, and she loved being near them. (My youngest would announce after breakfast that he was going to see Grandma; soon we realized that she was giving him a second breakfast.)
We lived there for the eighteen months of her chemo, remission and recurrence. We spoke frankly with the kids about what was happening, as did my mother. Was it rough for them? It was rough for all of us. Mom had a lot of anger at her fate. She was only 64 at the time of her diagnosis. She blamed my father for ever introducing her to smoking.
When she finally died we all cried together. We were happy that we had been able to spend so much time together. The children still treasure their memories of time spent with Grandma, in spite of the pain. I know she loved being with them and they comforted her. (As I write this my eyes are wet, all these years later.) Dying and death are part of life and there is no use dodging the fact.