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03/16/2010

Death and the Five-Year-Old

CallalilyLast weekend my grandmother suffered a small stroke. She's been in the hospital since then, forcing my mother to cancel the planned sleepover with my daughters. I debated how I should break the news to my five- and two-year-olds, and finally decided that honesty was the best policy. I explained that Gigi (their name for my grandmother) was sick and they might not see her for several weeks. Both girls were concerned, but seemed to take the news well.

But then a few days later the questions started from my oldest daughter, Cordy.

"Is Gigi still sick?" she asked one day in the car.

"Yes, she's still sick. It may be a long time before she's better." I replied.

"Will she die?" Cordy then asked, a sense of urgency in her small voice.

I didn't know how to answer. I wasn't prepared to talk about death at this age. Actually, I didn't even know that she had any grasp of the concept of death.

"Well," I stammered, "We hope she won't die." Keep sticking to that honesty policy, right?

"But she might die? I don't want Gigi to die! I'd never see her again!" Cordy's voice began to crack as the full reality of never seeing her Gigi again hit her.

I quickly backpedaled - screw honesty. "Honey, Gigi is sick, but it's not that bad. She'll probably be OK. Don't worry, you'll get to see her again."

"So she isn't going to die?"

"She isn't going to die right now," I assured her. I then silently begged fate to not make a liar out of me.

I thought I had calmed her fears, but our death talk wasn't over yet. She then began to cry, saying, "You and daddy will die someday, too! You'll die and then I'll be all alone forever!"

Oy.

In order to calm her down, I then had to promise her that not only were daddy and I in no way dying anytime soon, but that we also would not die for a long, long time. Remind me to please go knock on wood, throw some salt over my shoulder, and always pick up that penny on the ground for good luck for the next 30 years, OK?

Maybe I was naive to think that five was too young to think about discussing death. Her knowledge on the subject has come out of nowhere, and it seems to be limited to the permanence of death and the inability to see someone who has died ever again. She has no idea what causes death, other than getting sick. In her eyes, even a cold can lead to death.

I can't blame her for being scared - death still scares me, too. No longer seeing a loved one is terrifying thought. And our family doesn't have any religious traditions to fall back on to comfort her. My husband is an atheist and while I was raised in a Christian background, I firmly consider myself undecided as to which religious beliefs I subscribe to. 

I can't decide if I did a good job at easing her fears with our talk or if I've only given her a false sense of security. I lost my grandfather when I was six-years-old, and while I remember being sad, I don't really remember how well I understood death or even how my mother explained it to me. Just how much information about death can a five-year-old handle without causing too much fear? Is glossing over it better than brutal honesty?

Thankfully, Cordy hasn't asked any more questions about  death since then. But I know it will come up again soon, and I need to think up a plan for how to handle it next time.

Christina can also be found at her personal blog, A Mommy Story.

This is an original Ohio Moms Blog post.

*Photo credit: Ana Garza

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