Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn • My 5-year-old has been asking a lot of questions about dying, such as what happens when you die, do you see God, how old are you when you die — which eventually results in a question about whether a young person can die.
Is this normal for the age? I never experienced this with my older child. We have not had a recent death in the family that might trigger these questions.
Dear Anonymous • In my experience it’s normal, but any time you’re worried and trying to figure out what the range of normal behavior is for a child, it’s better to ask someone "on the ground" versus someone in the ether like me, because that person would have the benefit of context and follow-up questions in answering you. Choose someone who knows you and your child, who is a veteran at dealing with matters of child development — teacher, pediatrician, clergy person, a particularly astute parent — and whose judgment you trust.
The 10-buck answer (or free answer, via your local library) is "Lifetimes" by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. It’s a matter-of-fact but gentle way to explain death to a child.
The way I see it — and the way I dealt with it with my kids’ relentless grilling — is that death is an ordinary, natural yet often sad part of life. I did tell them that everything that lives does eventually die, that people die, that most people live lives of more than 70 years, but some die sooner, even children, though that’s very, very rare. I told them that some people believe you see God and some don’t, some believe in heaven and some don’t, and that no one who is alive can be sure — we can only believe.
I also see these larger questions as completely sensible, and answering them truthfully as appropriate, for any child who is trying to process the wider world. Even if they’re years from having to deal with a human death, they’ll still notice an unlucky squirrel in the road.
But, different kids process things differently, so not asking is normal, too.
Carolyn Hax’s column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
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