I think the three most difficult questions a child is going to ask you will be religion, the facts of life, and death. Recently, we had a little brush with the topic on death…
Last night, I told Gavin he was going to have dinner with his great grandpa. When he kept repeating that he was going to have dinner with great grandpa AND great grandma, I felt the need to correct him that great grandma had already passed away. Just as he always does, Gavin asked why she passed away.
I’ve always made it a policy not to make things up when I talk to Gavin. The rest of the family might think it simplifies matters to gloss over the truth, or that it makes it easier to gain his cooperation to tell him little white lies, but I have always tried to tell him the truth as far as possible. Unfortunately, I was too truthful yesterday.
We’ve never really talked about death even though there have been incidents in the family. We’ve always shielded Gavin from these events because there is a Chinese superstition that children and death don’t mix. For that reason, we have not been participating in Cheng Beng (the Chinese equivalent of “All Souls’ Day”) since Gavin was born. My ILs would go to the graveyard to perform the “ceremony”, but Gavin and I would always remain at home. Similarly, when my grand uncle (who was like a father to my Dad) passed away, I didn’t attend the wake. When hubby has to attend funerals, Gavin and I would always remain at home.
For that reason, the topic of death has never really come up until now. When Gavin asked why great grandma died, I said it was because she was old. Naturally, the follow-on question was why did she die because she was old? So I tried to explain that it was the natural progression of life. When people get old, they die. Even I will eventually die when I get old.
That was a real foot-in-the-mouth moment for me because the moment I mentioned that I, too, would eventually die, Gavin started to cry. Hubby, on his high horse, reprimanded me for bringing up the subject of death to a toddler. Okay, so it was a mistake to mention that I was going to die but I was unprepared for the twist in the conversation and I was being true to my “tell the truth” philosophy. In the end I had to take it back because Gavin wanted me to try not to get old because he didn’t want me to die.
Obviously three years old is the wrong age to be talking about death but we sort of stumbled into the topic. Given a second chance, I’m sure I would have answered him differently. Nevertheless, what’s done is done. My question now is: At what age do you think it is appropriate to explain death to a child?