The Two Stages of Grief (for Preschoolers)

Sutton and Matilda

Sutton and Matilda

We did a little bit of bargaining in the wake of my daughter’s fish’s death — if that’s what you’d call it when we offered to get her a new fish, and five seconds later she was thinking up names for it. Other than that, my kids skipped right over denial, anger and depression and went straight to acceptance.

This morning, we brought home Sutton’s new fish, Matilda, named after her favorite book, musical and second-favorite movie (behind James and the Giant Peach). Before we’d even transferred Matilda into her permanent tank, Sutton was thinking up names for the next fish she’d get after Matilda died. (The current front-runner for the next fish’s name: Sutton). Then, Bennett started thinking up names for the fish he’d get after his current fish, Sulley, died. (Current front-runner: Bennett).

Drew and I tried to keep the conversation about fish, but it didn’t take long before the kids made the connection that people die, too.

“Someday, I’m going to die,” Bennett announced. He sounded almost happy about it, like he was just pleased to be included in something that had been such a big topic of conversation for us. Little did he know he was uttering my worst fear out loud.

“Not for a long time,” we assured him. “A long, long, long, long, long, long, long [I actually think we’re still saying ‘long’] time.”

Sutton took it a step further. “Someday, Roald Dahl is going to die,” she said.

“He already did, actually. Quite a few years ago.”

“Oh. Well, I think he left some stories for after he died.”

“Yeah, that’s the nice thing about when people die. They always leave behind wonderful things for us, whether it’s their books or the memories they gave to all the people who loved them.”

There’s something both wonderful and incredibly disturbing about seeing my kids so at peace with death. I know they don’t fully understand what they’re talking about, and that’s part of what makes me so uncomfortable. I’m torn between changing the subject and shaking them violently and screaming, “Death is everywhere, and it’s permanent and horrible and it’s coming for all of us and sometimes, it’s all I think about! Fear death! Fear death!”

But I calm myself down, acknowledge what they say and try to move on, because they’re still processing what happened, and for now at least, I’m the one who has a problem with it, not them. It’s probably the right course to take, but it does require me and Drew to have our guts ripped out over and over from the things they come up with. Like this gem, from Bennett, which I typed down verbatim after he said it:

“The day before I die, I’m going to say goodbye to you guys and I’m going to do a happy dance and then I’m going to die and you’re going to drive me to the cemetery.”

I hear things like that coming from my 4-year-old’s mouth and wonder how I can go on. Then I realize what beautiful and amazing kids I have, and I picture my son doing his happy dance, and once again, I’ve forgotten about death and I’m thinking about life instead.

37 comments on “The Two Stages of Grief (for Preschoolers)

  1. Happy Dance? Have you not yet shown them Balki’s Dance of Joy. These last two posts have been sad, scary, touching, reassuring, and full of joyous life. I love all of you!

  2. Yeah, it is days like today…and conversations like Bennett’s ‘happy dance’ one that are making me wonder how ‘lucky’ we are to have such verbal and precocious kids. I think I could go for some mud-eating dopey kids right about now. I don’t know how many more “will you take me to the cemetery” convos my old heart can stand.

  3. I hate having to talk abt death with our young kids…I lost my mom a year ago and my husband lost his brother, so we have had to go down this road with them. They have a funny view of it, I’m pretty sure my kids think of Heaven like Target, a place to go that you can come back from. My 5 year old talks abt going to heaven all the time, I tell him that he’ll be a million years old before he goes 😉 great post, thanks for sharing.

  4. My youngest son use to take off running from us in parking lots – freaked us out all the time – one day he took off and a car came around a corner – just missed him – both my husband and I were shaking and we grabbed him and said do you realize you could of died – death means gone and there is no coming back from that. We are Catholic and I guess he was listening in church more than I thought – because he said – “that’s ok I’ll die and come back in three days” – my husband said – “there is only one person who can do that and it’s not you!” Kids say the most insane things.

  5. I introduced my son to the concept of heaven in our discussions of death because, well, who knows, really. That led to this: “I can’t wait until you die because then I’ll die too and we can be in heaven together and I can meet your mom and dad too.” Frightened me (to death?), and then had the same realization as you – he is an amazing kid who makes me celebrate life.

  6. My son, at age 4, used to sob himself to sleep, repeating: I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, in this truly terrified little voice – that destroyed me completely! I didn’t want to lie and say no, you’re not going to die…but it was hard to keep a level tone talking calmly about how it is part of life, but not something a healthy four year old needs to worry about while said four year old is literally quaking in your arms in terror. I have always believed in telling the truth when your children ask you questions (in an age appropriate way – and I do rely heavily on the ‘some people believe’ or sometimes ‘i believe’ caveat), but was not expecting the whole ‘what is the purpose of life’ stuff quite so early!! So I just calmly kept answering his questions (and then crying myself to sleep at the horror of some of his scenarios – where do they get this stuff?) in the hope that the calmness would rub off on him.
    And then, one day, after I had finally conceded defeat and was calling psychologists to get an appointment, it just stopped. His questions were answered and it was over. We went back to reading a story and going to sleep.
    Now seven, when we recently lost a family friend to cancer, my son said: I am really sad that I can’t see (our friend) anymore. I had lots of things to ask him that I forgot to when we saw him (last). Death is tricky like that, isn’t mum?

  7. This is great. Tonight I responded to my 16 year old daughter’s tested request to go to a party and sleep over at her friend’s house with the following:
    “But I WORRY!!! Arrgggggghhhhhhhh. I worry about boys and booze and drugs and cars and driving in cars with boys and boys who’ve been drinking driving you and back seats of cars and parties getting weird and boys getting weird and you drinking too much and rumours and mean girls and and and just everything. Please be 4 again. She was unimpressed. I feel your fear. I would like to tell you the fears lessen as they get older. I’d like to tell you that but I’d be lying. You just worry about different things; things over which you have less and less control ohmigodgetmeAtivan. Ommmmmm. I’m joking but I’m not really joking… and then, we die. So why worry anyway?
    (sorry, couldn’t resist).

  8. I can relate to this post, Actually, I think as parents we worry about their reaction because of our own hang ups about the topic. My family has had to deal with death in forms of pets and last year my father. Since we had pets pass away my daughter understood what it meant when my father died; he was gone from this earth. She was sad and cried (we all did). She went to the memorial service and we talked about her feelings and memories of her grandpa.
    I have learned more from her about dealing with death because kids truly live in the moment with their emotions but then, they move on. Whether it’s happiness, sadness or whatever feeling it may be; they feel it, react to it and they move on to the next thing.
    This had helped me put “death” into a healthy perceptive that you need to allow yourself to experience the emotions as they come and allowing yourself to live life! My daughter requires me to live in the moment and that is the beauty of it all. .

  9. Yeah, the little monster actually plays dead, sprawling on the floor, rolling up his eyes and letting his tongue loll out of his mouth. It makes it really tough to scare him off climbing on the balcony reling when he thinks that “When you fall off the balcony you are going to be dead!” is probably going to be followed by “And then you put your tongue back into your mouth and get up again.” I guess all we can do is to enjoy just how lighthearted these 4-year-olds are-

    • Ha. My daughter has been asking me to take her to where people are buried. She also wants to go to where dogs are buried. I think she expects she’ll actually be able to see the people and dogs.

  10. It’s so crazy to me that some of my friends who are parents never, EVER utter the “d-word” in front of their kids…. they whisper it, as though hearing “death,” even the very idea of the concept, will destroy their innocent children. I think what you guys did (instead of just replacing the fish with an identical one and pretending death doesn’t exits), is awesome. And God forbid, someday they will lose someone they know, but because of the wonderful way you guys are raising them, they will be prepared for the transition. xx

    • Thanks, Jen. I hope you’re right. I hate lying to my kids under any circumstances, and it was definitely not an easy conversation to have, but it feels good to have gotten it out of the way — for now, at least.

  11. I can totally relate to this. The topic of death recently came up with my four year old as well, and I must say that you handled it much better than I did. I was so afraid of scaring her that I wound up confusing her by relating it to sleeping. Ugh! They need to make a handbook of how to deal with this for non-religious families!

  12. I do not envy you. I tear up whenever the thought of death or cancer and death or car accidents and death…. I always think of my kids and pray that I will never have to bury them. A child died in a nearby city not long about. I shudder to imagine the horror of the parents. I know that Lovey will soon be asking about death too; we have a family member on hospice. 😦

  13. God, I will never cease to be amazed at how unintentionally wise and beautiful children can be. Even when they are being smelly and weird an inappropriately loud, they still can knock my existential socks off.

  14. I think all children go through a stage of questioning life and what happens when you die. We have just gone through this with my 3 year old, my grandmother passed away and when myself and my husband brought our sons to visit her grave and say goodbye I found myself unable to hold back the tears, my 3 year old asked my husband what was wrong with mummy to which he replied that I was sad because my nanny had passed away and was in heaven now and I was just saying goodbye, my son then ran over to me and said “It’s OK mummy, nanny got a roller-coaster up to Heaven, shes an angel now and can fly like a superhero, we’ll go there some day too!”

  15. I hate the flippy flop my stomach makes every time my kids mention their deaths, but I try not to over react so that they don’t think more of it than they should. I’m also a firm believer in truth telling to your kids (except for mythical gift giving entities!) and they know that everyone dies eventually.

    However, a few months ago the 6yr old began to cry whenever he thought about himself dying (which was scarily often) and he would work himself into quite a state. I finally told him the “the scientists” are working on a pill that would stop people from dying and that it would probably be ready by the time he was old. That has completely satisfied him.

    I figure there has got to be someone working on that somewhere, so it’s not technically a lie!

  16. Hi. We’re Julián and Agus, a married gay couple. We have a son together, Martin, and we’ve created Weerlly (www.weerlly.com) in order to provide homoparental families with products to be identified with. We were very sad when we could’nt find then for our son, so we decided to make them ourselves! We wish you like them! We are on http://www.weerlly.com and on facebook (www.facebook.com/weerlly). Kisses and love, love, love!

  17. My grandpa, just a week before he passed away, told me that “death is a celebration of life. So when my time comes, don’t be sad, go celebrate! Celebrate my journey on earth.” I think he would have wanted to do Bennet’s happy dance too 🙂

    I love reading about your lovely family, Jerry. Sending you love from Jakarta!

  18. I love that Sutton’s favorite book is Matilda and I love even more that she knows the author at only four years old. Roald Dahl is fantastic. Your kids have great taste.

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