My oldest son is four. He often brings up the subject of death. When I tell him not to run into the street, he'll say "Because I will DIE?!" Or when anyone gets hurt, he waits for the blood to come out and says, "If all the blood comes out he will DIE?!" He asks a lot of questions about death and we answer as best we can for his age and then we watch as he gets quiet and thoughtful and we wonder how his young mind processes the huge concepts we are putting before him.
Thankfully we have not suffered a crisis that affects his daily life in a great way. My husband's father passed over a year ago, and because he had lived far away Kyle didn't see him often, but he did remember him. Keeping in mind that he was only three, on the next trip back to visit his hometown my husband brought our son on the boat when his family scattered his father's ashes over the water, explaining that Grandpa George now lived in heaven, and this is the place we can come to visit and talk to him, even though he can't talk back. Now Kyle will say, when we mention Grandpa George, that he lives in the water! It doesn't seem to hurt, so we haven't corrected him, especially because we think he may still have trouble wit the abstract idea of heaven.
Death and dying and explaining these concepts to children really makes a parent stop and think: if I haven't already defined my own opinion about what happens after we die, how can I explain it to my son? My husband has no problem with it: when you die, you go to heaven if you've been good, and hopefully heaven is a long beach break with a great swell coming in (he loves to surf). I periodically have a little more trouble with the matter, so I consider myself fortunate that I haven't had to have such a heavy conversation with my inquisitive child...yet.
What's most important is to tackle the tougher subjects in language that young children can handle, using examples of things they have seen or experienced. At the same time, there's no need to talk down to them or assume they can't understand. They understand, but differently. If you are dealing with an issue that makes you very emotional, it might help to have another adult your child trusts in the room with you, to reassure him that you are going to be okay, because a parent's pain can become the child's pain, too.
I have had success with more immediate topics, at least. Our household is not immune to child vs. parent shouting matches, and a few months ago Kyle starting yelling "I FORGIVE YOU!" as he angrily stomped around, clearly not in a forgiving mood. It occurred to me that he had heard the words somewhere but he wasn't given the right context. So one night as he was falling asleep, curled into the hollow of my body in a precious snuggle, we had one of our first Big Conversations. Using terms he could understand, I talked to him about forgiveness and what it means to really be sorry. "I say 'forgive you' when I'm not mad anymore?" His simple questions in his quiet, clear voice got me thinking hard, and I realized he was teaching me as much if not more than I was teaching him.
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