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When Your Toddler Asks About Death

“Does my heart start beeping when I go to sleep at night?” my 4-year-old daughter Petunia asked, not long ago. “Does that mean I die every night? I don’t want to die.”

I froze. Quite fortunately, death hasn’t been a topic that has ever needed to be discussed in our family for as long as she’s been alive. Of course, as a self-studied expert in all things Disney, not to mention having been the accidental recipient of a joyful-though-quickly-turned-tearful reading of I’ll Love You Forever, plus once witnessing a fox devour a ground squirrel in our backyard, her exposure to death and dying might not be on the forefront of her mind, but her exposure to it is near-constant nonetheless.

Still, it was the first time she had ever verbalized any kind of a curiosity about death, and it made me realize I needed to keep some answers in my back pocket, especially since I wanted to ensure my message was as on-point as a politician’s campaign message, and I didn’t want to say anything that could potentially burden her with more fear than necessary.

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“No, your heart never stops beeping,” I replied matter-of-factly. “Even when you’re asleep, your heart is always awake, alive and beeping.”

“Oh, OK,” she said cheerfully, and moved on to inquire when I thought she might lose her first tooth.

But my instinct to quickly learn how to handle the topic proved to be on-target, as the questions since that time about death have been near-constant. My mother-in-law recently visited and volunteered to patch up one of Petunia’s play dresses, and remarked how her mother used to sew dresses from patterns.

“Where does your mom live?” Petunia inquired.

“Oh, she’s been gone for a long time,” my mother-in-law replied gently.

Petunia went over and hugged her grandma. “Does that mean she died?” she said knowingly, although she didn’t quite know what she was saying. “You must be very sad.”

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Since then, Petunia has asked frequently about her great-grandmother and expressed what appears to be dutiful sorrow at her passing—because she somehow realizes that’s the appropriate response, even if she doesn’t know why. On one recent night, though, her curiosity became a little less vague.

“When will I die?” Petunia asked me as we were cuddling one night before bed. “When I die and my heart stops beeping, when will I get to see everyone again?”

“I don’t know when you’ll die, but I know it won’t be for a long, long time,” I said to her reassuringly. “And, yes, after we all die, we’ll meet again in heaven.”

I was careful not to mention that people die when they’re older or old because I didn’t want her worrying about her grandparents—I just told her not to worry about any of us dying anytime soon. I also made sure the topic of death included no mentions of sleep—the last thing any of us need is a 4-year-old keeping us or herself awake in an effort to keep us alive.

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At her age, and not having experienced it with anyone she knows, the whole concept is still pretty abstract. We rode the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World, and she didn’t have the faintest concept of what the gravestones symbolized. She sees the wicked queen fall off the cliff in the Snow White movie, but she doesn’t comprehend what it means when told she’s never coming back.

I keep telling her honestly when asked that everyone will, indeed, die, but I try and keep the emphasis on the fact that we will be around for quite some time, and that the most important thing is we stay as healthy and as happy as we possibly can and enjoy our time while we’re alive.

Clearly, the conversation will continue to get more specific as the years go on, but my takeaway from it has been to let it flow as often as she needs.

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