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Jun 20 2013

Someone Told My 3-Year-Old About Death (and it Wasn’t Me)

By at 11:24 am

Since moving to the suburbs, I’ve encountered more nature than I typically care to. Some of it has been sort-of-cute, like the occasional fluffy bunny rabbit that finds his way onto my front lawn and contemplatively nibbles blades of grass. Other things have been anything but cute, like the hapless mouse who had the nerve to come into my living room and who met a grisly end for his trouble, and the moths that determinedly find their way in my house no matter how obsessively I clean.

It was one of these moths that my 3-year-old and I were recently attempting to catch in his bedroom when he shouted, “Come on, Mommy! Let’s dend the bug!” Befuddled, I asked him to repeat the word, which he did–“dend!”–and my confusion turned to horror as I asked, “You mean dead the bug!?” Yes, he told me. That was it. Apparently, while playing with our neighbors outside, they had squashed a bug and it got “dend.” When I cautiously asked him if he knew what that meant, he paused, unsure. And there it was: what I call my “Full House Moment,” my opportunity to deliver a nice, tidy lesson on what death means with a metaphorical violin playing softly in the background. Except I had no idea what to say.

I try to be a progressive mother, and I always planned to speak honestly with my kids about more difficult topics–of which death is certainly one–when the subject arose or the time was ripe for a teaching experience. But somehow, I didn’t expect to have to explain the concept of death, albeit for a bug, to a 3-year-old.

When I think back to my own childhood and how death was explained to me, not much comes to mind in the form of official teaching. I do remember one particularly dour second grade teacher who droned on about how all the Jews who had died would come back to life when the Messiah came and roll their way to Jerusalem. I also remember having nightmares for a few weeks about Jewish zombies clawing their way out, en masse, from deep below the earth. And, fortunately, I didn’t have many older relatives who died when I was young, except for my great-uncle when I was 7 years old, but I don’t remember death being formally explained to me then, either.

It also wasn’t explained to me why loudly telling a joke at the somber shiva house was not appropriate; to my 7-year-old perspective, those people certainly looked like they could use a good joke.

Back in the present time, there I was, fumbling for something meaningful to say to my toddler when his attention quickly turned to something else, as toddlers’ attentions spans are wont to do, and I was briefly given a pass. 

But it’s a potent reminder that I can’t be in control of what, and at what age, he is exposed to things. And I still don’t know how to respond to the whole dend thing.

How did you speak about death to your young children?

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