Life Parenting

My Daughter Wants To Know When I Am Going To Die

I make deliberate efforts to shield my three children from the ugly elements of life. They will learn too soon that people treat other people poorly. They will eventually be witnesses to the fact that life isn’t always fair; money, food, clothing, and possessions are not divided and spread equally between friends, neighbors, and strangers. My kids believe sharing is caring, but violence, guns, murder, poverty, and starvation are overshadowing realities of people not caring enough about others.

I shield my four-year-old daughter and two-year-old twins by turning off the news when they come into a room, censoring the books I read to them, and carefully choosing the television shows and movies they watch. My partner and I teach our children the value of money, emphasize compassion, and preach the need to help those who depend on the kindness of strangers. We don’t want our children to think they lead charmed, untouched lives, but we don’t think it’s necessary to over-expose them to the harsh realities either.

I don’t think I am sheltering my young children by postponing their knowledge of life’s inequalities and brutalities. Trust me, it’s not like they are happy all of the time. They experience sadness, disappointment, and anger—usually because they can’t always have what they want—but their worlds are safe and naive. But one reality we can’t escape is death. We are fortunate to not have had to explain the loss of a loved one to our children. Yet death is a common topic of conversation that Eva, my preschooler, wants to discuss.

Kids at school play good guys vs. bad guys and killing is always part of the game. Disney insists on killing off someone in nearly all of their movies—and if it’s not a life killed, they find a way to kill the planet, an idea, or spirit before all is made right again in the world. Our first dog died when Eva was a year old, and pictures of the two of them are everywhere. Her friends at school have talked about the death of grandparents.

About a year ago, Eva got caught up in the good guys vs. bad guys game at school. She wanted to shoot and kill and “make people die.” I let it go for a few days because I didn’t want to bring attention to something if it would pass by as quickly as it appeared. But one night while she was playing in the bathtub, she looked at me and said, “I’m going to kill you!”

I was quick to snap at her. “Eva! Do you know what that means? Do you know what it means to kill someone?” She sheepishly explained that it’s just a game she plays at school. I took the time to explain that killing is not a game. Killing means death. Guns and weapons are not toys. And pretending to hurt or kill someone is not okay. When someone is dead, they are gone forever.

For a three-year-old, she seemed to understand what I was saying. She wanted to know why cops are allowed to have guns. She wanted to know why some of her friends had toy guns. She wanted to know when I was going to die.

The first two questions were pretty easy to answer. To the third, I told her I didn’t know. I reassured her that it would be a long time from now and not something she should worry about. I reminded her that I was healthy, and I and her other mama make choices to stay healthy by exercising and eating good food. I fought the urge to tell her I would be with her forever and that I would always be here when she needs me. I wanted to hold her forever to prove the point. But I didn’t. I may want to shield my children, but I don’t want to lie to them either.

My lecture on gratuitous killing turned into a conversation I was not prepared to have. But just as quickly as it started, it ended. Death didn’t come up again for several more months. Then she watched The Lion King. She loved the movie, even became obsessed with it for most of the spring, but two things happened again: Her obsession included reenacting the scene in the movie when Scar lures Mufasa into his own death and asking me about my mortality.

I know she is just trying to wrap her brain around an idea even I don’t fully understand, but it’s a bit unsettling to watch her laugh like a hyena when she is successful in her pretend mission to throw Mufasa off a cliff. It’s even more unnerving when she then turns a movie script into real life and asks me when I am going to lie down and never get up again.

The reoccurring conversation now involves sadness. Some of it is for dramatic effect, but some of her emotions are real when she asks me questions about death. She now understands the concept of missing someone, and the idea of missing me or her mama forever is too much for her senses. But she doesn’t have a strong a concept of time, so she can’t see herself as an adult who will hopefully be well-adjusted enough to handle my death with grace and some understanding. She worries that when I and her mama die there will be no one to take care of her. She worries she will be the one to take care of her siblings, and she is already worried about feeling sad and scared.

What she doesn’t know is that I worry about these things too. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with panic and fear of unexpected tragedy. But the beauty of life is that even in the face of these things, there is hope and happiness. I want to protect my children from all of life’s negativity, but that is not realistic or doing them any favors. I believe adversity builds strength and character, but they will only understand that if they know the reasons to fight through it. I believe they will better understand news headlines or personal hardship if they are grounded in the view that life can be made better by their words and action.

Death is a powerful, emotional, and inevitable part of life. I don’t know what the future holds, but I want Eva to feel safe while trying to understand a very mature topic.

Part of my strategy includes shielding her from humanity’s bad side. My partner and I shield our children because we don’t want them to become desensitized to negativity and sadness or hardened with the expectation that awful things should be taken in stride with the wonderful. If we show them an overabundance of kindness and love, we hope they will grow up with the desire and belief that they should continue the pattern. We want them to feel a responsibility to make the world better. We want them to be appalled by anything less. Our children will not always be blissfully ignorant, but when they come to us with knowledge and curiosity about hard topics, we will not shield them from the truth.