Talking to 5 year olds About Death

The day before my mother-in- law died this summer I started writing a post about how we were dealing with the reality of a grandparent dying and Aidan’s reactions and questions.  Since she died the next morning I didn’t get a chance to finish my thoughts, we just had to deal.  I thought I would post what I had written and then, well I don’t know, maybe I will try to finish my thoughts.


Originally written on July 21st, 2010

Halifax, Nova Scotia

It is no secret that my mother-in-law is dying.  She in in end stage palliative care and is very near the end.  She can’t speak very much and when she does it is very hard to hear her.  The drugs she is on make her very out of it and I am not sure how much she is comprehending right now.  As a result there is no hiding from our very curious 5 year old that his grandmother is dying.

Aidan has all kinds of questions and we do our best to answer them as honestly as we can without hurting him. He knows that she is very sick and at this point he knows that she is going to be dead soon.  He has seen her twice in the hospital, both boys have, and they get the best smiles from her that I have seen since we got here.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, I am not sure which, the questions come more often when we are in the hospital room.  I thought I answered most of the ones that would come up, but one I just didn’t think about was one I really hope his grandmother didn’t hear.  Not because I think it was a bad question, and not because it was something I really couldn’t answer,though I couldn’t, but because I think it might hurt her feelings. How do you answer “How does it feel to be in the cemetery?”

I know that my boy is trying to process everything.  I personally believe in heaven even though I have no real idea of what heaven might actually be like.  For a while Aidan thought that heaven was in the Himalayas.  I am totally ok with that idea.  Tonight he wanted to know where heaven was. I told him that I think god can make heaven where ever we like it best, and I asked him where he thought heaven should be for him.  So far our house is winning as the place he likes best in the world.

I am not sure we will bring the boys back to the hospital. I wasn’t sure we were going to bring them to the hospital the 2nd time, but we asked Aidan if he wanted to go to see his grandmother again. The way her eyes lit up when she saw them and they sent her hugs and kisses makes me want to bring them for her sake, but I am just not sure if it is a good idea.


In the end we decided to have my mother come to the house early and have just Anthony and I go to the hospital.  I am glad that is the decision we made because Kathy died a little after we got to the hospital.  I know that it was a good thing for us to be there so that we could be there for John.

In the days that followed Aidan had even more questions, some easy to answer, some harder.  We even had some misunderstandings that frankly gave us a bit of a laugh, which in a time of grief you need. We didn’t bring Aidan to the funeral home for the visitation because it really wasn’t set up for two very energetic little boys.  The only down side to this was during the funeral itself when Aidan really wanted to open up the casket.

After the burial Aidan said goodbye to Grandma as we left the cemetery.  Quinlan didn’t say goodbye until we were quite far away from the cemetery and Aidan told him that we were too far to say goodbye to Grandma.  When I told him that I believe that Grandma’s spirit can  hear them from wherever they are, he was confused.  I then said that  it was just grandma’s body that was in the cemetery not her soul.  To this he replied “Only the body? Where are Grandma’s head and legs?” Yes, children this age still have some very concrete ideas and the abstract ones are difficult to understand.  I think that in some ways kids are just more honest about their confusion than the adults around them.

In the end I think that the honesty with which we dealt with Kathy’s death was a lot easier than trying to figure out elaborate untruths, or even avoidance.  Aidan still lets us know that while he knows that Grandma is dead and he won’t see her, he wishes she could be undead.  He remembers her and loves her and that will always be something he has.  We just need to remember that sometimes out of the blue we will get more questions about why people die.  The answer “I don’t know” is an ok answer to have.  When he asks “are we going to die?” answering that I hope not anytime soon, but someday yes, is appropriate, honest and I hope reassuring.  Now I just need a satisfactory way to answer his questions about war.

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1 Response to Talking to 5 year olds About Death

  1. Alexis says:

    We didn’t have to explain a lot when The Imp’s Granddad died in May. The Imp wasn’t even two, we just told him that Granddad was gone. He knew Granddad had been very sick (had been to see him a number of times as he declined) and that now he was gone.

    He still would get excited if we drove through the neighbourhood where Granddad lived, shouting “Go see Granddad! Go see Granddad!” as we got close. How do you explain the permanence of death to a toddler?

    In the last few weeks, The Imp has started asking about Granddad again. We’ve been trying to be honest and age-appropriate in our responses – and we learned that somehow The Imp had figured that Granddad just didn’t want to see him anymore, and that made The Imp sad. We’re still trying to explain that Granddad didn’t want to go, but that’s what happens when you get old, get sick. I think somewhere in that little mind, The Imp thinks it’s somehow his fault.

    The heart breaks. And breaks and breaks and breaks.
    .-= Alexis´s last blog ..Things That Are True – Lost Children =-.

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