The day my son asked about life & death

The experience of my son asking me questions about life and death, has left me feeling very sad and left him feeling even sadder.  I’m not sure I handled his questions as well as I could.  I answered his questions honestly and as truthfully as I could. Should I not have been honest? How do you explain life and death to a 5 year old?

So this is what happened…

My son is 5 and we were discussing his reading and writing as I was tucking him into bed tonight.  I said to him ‘when you are 6, like your cousin, you will be able to read and write!’.  To which he smiled and looked pleased.  He then asked ‘why is my cousin older than me?’ And I said ‘because he was born before you’.  My son then went on to say ‘so I was still in your tummy?‘ And I said ‘yes‘ (half truth as his cousins 1.5 years older!).

My son went on to ask ‘whose tummy were you in mummy?‘ And I said ‘nanny’s tummy, because she’s my mummy‘.  He then asked ‘whose tummy was daddy in?’ And I said ‘Granny, his mummy’.  Then he said ‘whose tummy was grandad in?’ ( my hubby’s dad) And I explained ‘grandad was in his mummy’s tummy, your great granny‘. My son then asked where great granny was and I told him that she was dead. ‘Whys she dead?!’ Said my son, with concern. ‘Because she was old and just died, that’s what happens when your old’ (oops could have said that better!) I could see his face changing and all if a sudden he screwed up his cute face and burst in to tears!

‘But I don’t want to die!‘ He said through his sobs.  I held him close and said ‘you won’t die for a very long time, you will do so much before then‘. ‘What will I do mummy?’ he asked, slightly more composed.  ‘You’ll travel and get married and have your own children...’ To which he interrupted with ‘but I don’t want to leave you!!’ Through floods of tears.  ‘I don’t want you to die, I want to be with you forever!’ (More sobs).

This broke my heart and I started to feel very upset and tried to hold the tears back. ‘I won’t die for a long time‘ I told my son ‘and I will always be with you’ (sort of). I wasn’t sure what else I could have said and wanted him to know I would always be there for him.

I held him close and quickly changed the subject and told him to dream about something nice, like playing with daddy on the beach today and getting wet paddling in the sea.  He immediately perked up a bit and I told him I loved him and gave him a kiss and we said good night.

I left my son with wet teary eyes, with a slightly broken heart and very confused and I felt so awful.  What do you say? What do you tell a 5 year old? I think I could have done better. I’m sure in his head, life exactly as it is now, is what he thinks life will be like forever.  And I think I just crushed a bit of that today. Will he remember our conversation tomorrow? Will he ask me more questions? Was he just really upset because it was late and he was tired? I’m not sure how much a 5 year old really takes in or understands.

Surprisingly, he didn’t ask me about my dad and where he is.  My dad died when I was 13, so he’s never known grandad from my side of the family, just my mum, his nanny.  He did ask once when he was 3 ‘where’s your daddy mummy‘ to which I said ‘he’s dead darling‘ and that was it, end of conversation. I don’t have any pictures up of my dad either, so there’s nothing really to prompt a question. But I know, one day, we will have to have that conversation and I will have to answer some difficult questions.

I never expected that I would be putting my son to bed and asked about life and death. I was completely unprepared. It just happened. But it’s got me thinking about it.  Oh how I want to bundle him up in my arms and tell him we will all be together forever.  Bless him, his little face craved it.  But is it better to be honest?

It’s not the first time recently the subject if death had come up. Very tragically my sons best friends dad died a month a go and I had to break the news to my son.  I had been dreading it and definitely got more upset than him.  He asked why his friends dad was dead and I just said he had been in an accident. That was the conversation.  I didn’t think he had taken it in, then a few weeks ago he said something that made me realise he had.  We were playing with daddy and mucking around playing shopping and I asked who would buy daddy. To which my son said ‘David (not real name) would as he hasn’t got a daddy anymore because he’s dead’. I could have cried there and then.  Bless his heart.

Have you ever had to answer any difficult questions about life and death from your children? And how did you handle it?

Jess x

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