Several weeks ago S unceremoniously flushed a pet platy down the toilet. He was fond of the little fish, though, and I could tell he was hoping for a replacement. At breakast he announced to his brothers that “Mango” had died. A expressed his disappointment, but G wanted to know when he would be coming back to life. When we reminded him that when animals or people die they don’t come back to life, he protested. “But Jesus came back to life.” As if that settled the matter. This is when I was reminded of the fact that preschoolers are still trying to make sense of the physical world around them. Metaphysical issues are not comprehensible if you do not have a firm grounding in the basics. In other words, to a certain extent, a miracle is not glorious or spectacular or joyful unless you first know the reality of pain and sorrow.
Below I have listed a few ideas on how to share with your preschooler your understanding of death and the afterlife, i.e. life with God. Two caveats before I begin: first, these ideas are shamelessly Christian in nature. For those who do not believe in God, or in Jesus, specifically, please feel free to share how you comfort and reassure your child. Second, these are not meant to address little ones who have suffered real loss or who are experiencing emotional difficulties. Instead, this is simply meant to describe how G and I (and his brothers) have talked about death, God and heaven at home as it comes up in natural conversation. As the “Mango” illustration above shows, he hears about death in relation to pets, , insects, through stories, movies, etc. in everyday conversation.
How to talk to preschoolers about death when they “do NOT want to go to heaven.”
All three of my boys experienced this aversion to talking about heaven or living with God during a certain period in their preschool years. As adults, we might imagine how wonderful such an existence will be. To a child, however, this may just sound strange and scary. Here is what we do:
1. Listen and ask questions. Their fear of death or heaven may not be a real worry, but more of a curiousity at this stage. Likewise, it may mask another concern, like having to move to a different neighborhood, or not knowing when they will be able to see a family member from out-of-state. Make sure you listen for the root of the concern.
2. Stress happiness and family being together. They need to know you all plan on being together, and they will not need to be without you.
3. Speak openly without vague language. Phrases, such as “when we rest in peace,” or “living in the clouds” will likely only confuse them. Let them know that you, too, recognize the sadness of someone dying. We all know someone whom we loved that has died. Let them know that even though we will be happy to see them one day when we live with God, they will never return IN THIS life.
4. Ask your child how he imagines heaven to be. Give them the opportunity to explore the possible answers through their own speech and imagination. Their theories just might astound you and inform your own theology.
5. Allow yourself a few “I don’t knows.” Admitting you are wrong or don’t know an answer may seem counterintuitive, particularly if you are the parent who wants to have all the answers, doesn’t it? However, by opening up to the possibilities that we just might be living on the same planet in the afterlife with new and improved trees to climb, we are inviting our little ones to look forward excitedly to his promises. It may even speak to the comfort and reassurance they crave at this stage.
In any case, do any of us have definitive answers?