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How I Talk To My Preschooler About Death

In my daughter’s four years on this earth, I’d say she has experienced more death around her than a typical four-year-old. With the loss of two of her siblings, my husband and I agreed that we would always try to help her understand death by answering any questions she may have. Death is an abstract concept for a preschooler. Someone was here, and now they’re not. What happened to them? Where are they now? Why do we say goodbye? How do we say goodbye?

As a family, we have been navigating grief these past two years and often discuss the babies that were born into heaven. My daughter, M, knows that she has a brother and sister in heaven. We don’t know for certain the gender of the babies, but a boy and a girl was impressed on our hearts. My four-year-old often asks about the babies randomly and it whips me into the centre of grief, but I try my best to answer her questions and ponder heaven with her.

My maternal grandpa passed away two weeks ago and it sparked a lot of conversations. Unlike the babies who M never got to meet, she got to spend her life getting to know her great-grandpa. Our family is tightly knit and we usually see extended family at least once per month. M enjoyed visiting her great-grandparents and playing with their “junky toys.” My grandparents kept many of the toys from my childhood and many toys from my mother’s childhood! So while they may be “junky,” some are actually vintage toys!

There have been many, many questions these past two weeks that we have had to answer in order to help M understand what has been happening with our family. Here are a few of her questions:
What happened to Tai Goong (maternal great-grandpa)?
Where’s his body?
How come he passed away?
When am I gonna die?
When are you gonna die?

Death is difficult to talk about. Though it happens often, it’s not a social norm to discuss. Grief is difficult, and we often try and avoid it. When we talk to our preschooler about death, we try to keep it simple and age appropriate for her. My husband and I have also agreed we will try our best not to sugar coat anything. No one will be going on a trip forever, or be sleeping forever. Our belief in heaven has helped me in many conversations with a curious four-year-old. Here are three ways how I talk to my preschooler about death:

Use Facts
With the miscarriages, it took so much courage to tell M about why I was so sad, but it felt even worse hiding a part of me from my daughter. My husband and I agreed if an opportunity came up for us to share about the babies, we would tell her. Sure enough, M simply asked, “Mommy, why are you sad?” I sat her down and told her that I had a baby in my tummy, but it wasn’t strong enough to keep growing. The baby died, but now lives in heaven with Jesus, and that Jesus would take care of the baby until we can get there. Of course that only got her curious about how we get to heaven.

With her great-grandpa’s passing, the conversation went something like this:
M: Why did he pass away?
Me: Well, his heart stopped working. When your heart stops, your body won’t work anymore.
M: Where’s his body?
Me: It’s in the ground now.
M: Deep, deep, deep down?
Me: Yes, and his spirit is in heaven.
M: Oh, then he’ll get to see the babies, my brother and sister.
Me: (With tears in my eyes) Yes, he gets to see the babies.

Set Boundaries
Now, you can imagine that when a preschooler is trying to make sense of a situation, there are about 1000 rapid fire questions coming from her mouth. With grief being very fresh for my family, we had to set some boundaries with M. We told her that not everyone wants to talk about death. When people die, we get sad because we will miss that person and it takes time to adjust to not having them on earth anymore. For the time being, we have told her to only ask Mommy and Daddy about dying.

My grandma requested that my littles stay home during my grandpa’s memorial service, so we took the girls to visit Tai Goong’s grave site afterwards to see all the flowers. M was so pleased to find that one of the flower arrangements was from her. With all that open grass, it was an invitation for a preschooler to run and play lily pad jumping. We educated her about how to show respect at a cemetery and if she had to jump, run, and roll, (like every four-year-old does) where she could do so appropriately.

Hope in Heaven
Without getting into major theology, we have told M that when people die, they go to heaven. She has asked why people were sad when Tai Goong passed way. We told her because we won’t get to see him anymore and that we’ll miss him. She quickly replied, “Oh, but we’ll see him again in heaven.” M reminds me how close heaven really is when I feel a division between realms. It’s so simple to her. Grief is complicated. To me, the grief of losing someone never ends. It changes over time and time helps to put a gap between you and the pain, but that pain never really goes away. 

There have been times where the pain I’ve endured on this earth has left me yearning for heaven. As my four-year-old reminds me, “We will have new bodies in heaven and we won’t have anymore pain.” Her hope and faith in the unseen keeps me going on difficult days.

Though the conversations have been tough around here, I’m thankful for the opportunity to answer all of my four-year-old’s questions and help her process the concept of death.

M: I wanna see the babies.
Me: I know, me too.
M: Will Tai Goong take care of the babies?
Me: I’m sure he will, until we get there.

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