While pulling into the Target parking lot last week:

Me: We’re just getting diapers and a card for my grandma. No toys today. Not even the dollar toys. Got it?

Kate (age 4): A card for your grandma?

Me: Yes, she is old and sick and it sounds like she will probably die soon.

Kate: Die? Why will she die?

Me: Well, when people get very, very old, our bodies get tired. Our hearts and lungs and whole bodies just want to rest. And then our lives here are over.

Kate: (Silent, scrunched-up thinking face in my rearview mirror) Will I die? And you?

Me: Yes, but not for a long, long time. You are just a little girl and have a big life ahead of you.

Kate: (Bugged-eyed and scared) I don’t want to die, Mama!

Me: I know. It’s scary. But dying is not so bad. When we come to the end of long lives, we fall asleep. And….then….um….we…go to be with God. Yeah. We go to be with God and are at peace and it is wonderful. Really wonderful, actually!

Kate: (A pensive moment’s silence, then face lit up) Mama, I can’t wait to die!

Me: Oh. Um. No no.

My cousin Paige is smarter than me. When her grandmother was dying, she handled the talk with her two kids like this:

My grandmother was too important to all of us to pretend that we weren’t losing someone amazing. She was not going to sleep. She was dying. Just because children are young does not mean they cannot comprehend death. My children were 2 1/2 and 4 at the time. I wanted my children to understand that death is a part of life and learn how to deal with such sadness and loss. We took the children to see their great-grandmother. She squeezed their hands and whispered their names for the last time. The next day they asked to see her again.

Kids: We want to go see Mom-Mom again. Please.
Me: I want to see her again, too, but we can’t. She is sick and dying.
Kids: Why does she have to die?
Me: You two are very young and I am older than you. Grammie is older than me and Mom-Mom is the oldest in our whole, entire family. When you get to be her age, your body gets tired and parts of it stop working. Mom-Mom’s body is not working anymore.
Kids: Will she forget us when she dies? Will she still love us?
Me: She will always love us and we will always love her. We keep love in our hearts and that love never stops. Even when we can’t see her, we will remember everything that made her special to us.

I didn’t want to hide the sadness from my kids. My job is to guide them through life’s struggles so that they have the tools to navigate myriad emotions in the future, without me.

Ugh. This is tough stuff. Question for all of you: How do you talk to your very young children about death? And how does the conversation change as they get older? I clearly need some help with this.

(Photo credit: Metro Creative)