The Longest Shortest Time

Do We Become Houses? + More 4-Year-Old Ideas on Death

Last week’s episode was about losing a sibling, and how your entire life can be impacted by the loss of a person you never met. My daughter Sasha is the same age that Giancarlo from that story was when his sister died, and it has struck me that even 4-year-olds who haven’t had any experience with death whatsoever can be obsessed with it. I have written here before about Sasha’s curiosity about death—back in December she was working out her ideas about it through drawings. Recently, her questions about death have ramped up. They are constant. And they are how I begin every single day.

We’ll be in the car—me still not entirely awake. And I’ll get hit with something like this:

When people die do they become houses?

Which is a scenario she depicted in the drawing below. She was careful to point out that there is a space between the person and the house because it is *in that space* that the person died. And it is a space because we do not know what happens while a person is dying.

It says, "She died and became a house."

It says, “She died and became a house.”

I should note, houses are another drawing obsession of hers.

Anyway, The next day I got this string of questions, with barely a breath between:

How was the first person a person without a mommy? Babies need milk. And if there was no mommy, there was no milk. And then they would die.

And the next day:

If there were soldiers around, would they kill us? Would they shoot fire? If we were shot with fire, would we die? You know who would help save us? Firemen. They would shoot the soldiers with fire. But firemen are good, so they would save us from dying with their fire.

I get asked exactly when I’m going to die. I get asked how old I’ll be; how old she’ll be when it happens to her. I get asked what number person I am, in the history of people. Her guess is two or three. When I tell her it’s in the billions, she gets agitated and demands to know who was first. She thinks it must be the person who sings Anna’s voice in Frozen. Which I guess means Kristen Bell?

And then, some nights, after a day of death questions, Sasha winds up bawling, saying she never, never, ever wants to die. She never wants me to die. She never wants to go to college and live away from me. The scene is a lot like this video that’s been going around:

I do the best I can with the death questions, but mostly I find myself saying, I don’t know. The I don’t knows are interesting, though, because when I admit that I don’t know, death becomes something we can puzzle through together. The first years of parenthood bring a lot of hard work, and that’s what we spend most of our time talking about on this show. But there is some hard work that is interesting, engaging hard work. Thinky stuff. And so far, as weird as it is to begin my day by thinking about exactly how and when I’m going to die, this stuff has been some of my favorite stuff about having a tiny person. (Sure beats the car rides of last summer, which had a soundtrack that I like to call Screaming from the Backseat.)

Still, I really, really want to know how to talk to Sasha about death, other than to just say, I don’t know. So I sent some questions to Joseph Primo, CEO of Good Grief, a New Jersey organization that helps children and teens cope with loss. He’s going to give us some thoughts on how to talk to young children about loss, from family members to pets, and also how to talk to kids in general about anxieties over the concept of death. I can’t wait to see what he says. Stay tuned for that blog post on Monday.

What does your child ask YOU about death?
Tell us in the comments.