Drawing Obsession: Death

Drawing Obsession: Death

Drawing Obsession: Death

Last week, after a bout of I-want-applesauce-I-DON’T-WANT-APPLESAUCE! (substitute any food or activity for applesauce), Sasha was uncharacteristically quiet for a few minutes. Which I took as an opportunity to eat my lunch. Then, out of the blue, she asked me the question I have most been dreading (even more than this one):

What is dying?”

I told her it was such an interesting question, and I asked her where she’d heard it, so I could help her understand what she’d heard. She said she heard it from nowhere. That she’d just made it up. So I asked her what she thought it meant. She said she had no idea, but insisted that I tell her.

Okay,” I said. “Dying is when something stops being alive. Like flowers and leaves in winter.”

No,” she snapped. “That is not what it is.”

What do you think it is?” I asked.

It is when you never ever come back,” she said, not a hint of uncertainty in her voice.

We talked about it a little, with me assuring her that when Mommy and Daddy are away, we are always coming back. But then, I wasn’t even sure if she was thinking of dying as something that could happen to people, so I asked her if it could.

Only to bad people,” she said. “Like the Wicked Witch. She dies into a hole.”


I had her draw me a picture of what the Wicked Witch looks like when she’s dying. And then she said she wanted to show me what dying really looks like. When it happens to a good person. Which, apparently, sometimes it does. She insisted that you needed to start with a light color.


And then end with a dark color.


I watched as Sasha very methodically and with steady pressure colored over every bit of the “good person with a smile.”

She is never ever coming back,” she told me.

It was all pretty haunting. And I, of course, felt like the thing that was dying was her innocence. But was it really? How much does she actually understand? We have not had a pet or family member or friend die in her lifetime, though I know she has friends who have experienced one (or all) of those things. My guess is that she’s gotten little bits from them, and maybe from mentions in movies (even the Broadway soundtrack of Peter Pan has Hook crooning about killing the boys). Who knows? All I know is, there is more to come. And I am going to need some books.

What books have you used with your toddlers to talk about dying? And what happened when they learned what it meant?

7 thoughts on “Drawing Obsession: Death

  1. my son was 6 when my dad was killed in a car accident last year. we had never talked about death before except to reference my grandparents. callum understood what death meant–gone and never coming back–but asked TONS of questions i wasn’t ready for, like what happens during cremation, why people believe in heaven or god, what it feels like to die, etc. the understanding that someone can die at any time, in any way, was the most difficult to help him through. we read badger’s parting gifts and chester raccoon and the acorn full of memories, more to focus on how to remember someone than how to understand death.

  2. This comes up every once in a while with us, too. This spring/summer a neighbor’s dog died and another set of neighbors’ grandmother/mother.

    I will admit I’ve taken the “just answer the question that is asked approach” (my daughter is three). And my answer to what happens is: “no one really knows”. This satisfies her because I think she’s generally more worried about it happening to her, than what happens afterwards. When she does come out with, “I don’t want to die” I say that everything alive has to die, but not right now, and then discuss all the things that will happen before she dies (hopefully), e.g. going to Kindergarten, then first grade, middle school, high school, etc… Once she realizes the time scale involved (i.e. longer than the next few days) she generally changes the subject.

    However, she is familiar with mummies (thanks to Elmo Hide-n-Seek around the world book) and skeletons (Halloween/middle school cousins) and that they happen after death, but she hasn’t quite sussed out the order of things yet. So randomly comes out with comments like “We become skeletons after we die” and my personal favorite, after the death of the mother of our next door neighbor, “Is [neighbor’s] mommy a mummy?”

    She’s cool with us keeping it calm. Which likely mirrors most of my own attitudes about death.

    What I have dodged so far and haven’t figured out is how to deal with different religious beliefs. Our greater family ranges from regular church-going to extreme believers-are-stupid atheists with various Catholic, UCC and Jewish middles.

  3. My dad died last year when my son was about 2. We’ve been fielding more questions lately and the book I’ve liked the best is an out-of-print book called A Story for Hippo. It’s about a monkey & hippo who are best friends. Hippo dies and monkey remembers Hippo by sharing stories about Hippo. Not religious at all, which was important to us. The other book that was good, albeit too mature for my son, was Leo Buscalia’s Freddy the Leaf. That book is more about life cycles.

  4. We read the Bernstein Bear book “Loose a Friend” where Goldie, Sister’s pet fish, dies. My daughter really understood Sister’s hurt feelings and sadness. I highly recommend it for a pet dying (probably not appropriate for a human because Golide get’s replaced with Golide 2).

  5. We lost my father when my son was almost 2, so death comes up every once in a while with both of my kids. I’ve always loved Betty White’s mother’s perspective on death. It’s honest, yet embraces wonder:

    My mother had the most wonderful outlook on death. She would always say, ‘Nobody knows. People think they do, you can believe whatever you want to believe what happens at that last moment, but nobody ever knows until it happens.’ But, she said, it’s a secret. So, all growing up, whenever we’d lose somebody, she’d always say, ‘Now, they know the secret.’”

  6. Thanks for sharing this moment with your daughter. I’ve really liked the book Lifetimes (http://www.amazon.com/Lifetimes-Beautiful-Explain-Death-Children/dp/0553344021).

    We had a cat that died when my daughter was 2, and we left its body in the woods and visited it week after week to watch it decompose. Might sound kind of morbid, but it made death “normal”, just part of what happens. We go for walks in the woods and look for bones, and imagine what kind of animal they might have come from.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Kate. Reminds me of how into bones I was as a kid. I guess I still am. My favorite part of art school was studying anatomy. Anyway. Really cool to be teaching your daughter about a whole new world of stuff, while dealing with heavy questions.

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