How Not to Explain Death to a Three-Year-Old

I couldn’t find a way to make it easy for a sensitive three-year-old without mentioning heaven. “So where is heaven?”

Despite losing my mum eight years ago, her photographs and mentions of her name throughout my son’s three years seems to have made her current enough that he has never really challenged her lack of presence.
Except, of course, when he asked 18 months ago, at Christmas, what Nana Joyce had bought him. We found that more funny than conversation provoking.
Last year, we lost my grandmother. Happily, she reached a good age and lived a life she chose. While my son knew her, she didn’t visit often enough that he noticed her lack of presence, so I just let it pass. After all, he wasn’t yet three. I just didn’t feel he needed to understand or contend with her passing.
For Grandmother’s birthday, he and I joined my mum’s sisters and their daughters to place flowers at the church where she lay. Rightly or wrongly, I struggle with the notion of heaven. Using it as a fallback when explaining death to my son doesn’t sit comfortably. The elders of my wider family, on the other hand, are very certain that heaven exists – that those who pass on are with them all the time.
In other words, a discussion of heaven was happening whether I liked it or not.
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With no other explanation prepared, I allowed him to ask his three-year-old questions as everyone explained where Nana Dot had gone and why we could sing Happy Birthday to her even though she couldn’t blow her candles out and didn’t really need a cake at all.
My son is a sensitive and intelligent soul, and I could see that his questions were leading to more questions internally. But for now, his processing mechanism would settle itself by running around the church courtyard, laughing and demanding to know why he didn’t get a vase for flowers inscribed with his name.
After retreating to a coffee shop with the family, my son and I started the journey home, during which his questions came thick and fast. No longer restricted by the elders and their heavenly certainty, I tried, gently and respectfully, to answer his questions about death and his new word, heaven.
It really wasn’t helpful that every song on the radio seemed to have the word heaven in it. “Heaven is a place on earth…”, “Heaven in your arms…”, “Show me heaven…”, and many more. (It turns out we were listening to a half-hour radio special on heaven, which I will always find weird and just too coincidental.)
Finally, I said that many people believe you go there once you die.
“Why do people die?”
“Well, with Nana Dot, she became so old that it was time for her to go and rest.”
“Why did Nana Joyce Die?”
“Well, my Mammy died because she was doing poorly, and the Doctor’s weren’t able to help her any more so she passed on to a place where she could rest.”
“Can I go there to see her?”
“No, sweetheart. While she may be able to see and hear you and help to guide you, you cannot see her.”
“Well, because she is in heaven.”
AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH, they bloody got me. I caved, I crumbled, I couldn’t find a way to make it easy for a sensitive three-year-old without mentioning heaven.
“So where is heaven?”
“I don’t know, son. Heaven means lots of different things to lots of people. To some people, it’s in the sky, to some it’s an idea, to some it’s here on earth (I think Belinda had infiltrated my brain with her wretched ear worm there), and to some it is a place that allows them to be at peace with their other family who are already there.”
“Can I go there now?”
“No, darling. One day, we will all go there, but not for a very long time.” (Oh, I was making myself squirm by this point.)
“Can people come back from there?”
“No, sweetheart. Once you go to heaven, you cannot come back.”
“Oh, now I’m sad. Now I will never see Nana Dot or Nana Joyce ever again!” He scrunched up his face to cry.
I comforted him, said it’s okay, that they wanted to rest, that they’re happier and healthier now.
Then, with a quizzical look on his face: “But Mam, is the meat in the fridge in heaven now?”
Bloody hell, has this child just decided that after death we become chopped up and eaten on our way to heaven? What in the world do I say to this? I could scar him for life!
“Uh…no, son. I don’t know what to say about that, because I’m not sure what you mean… Let’s pretend to be Tow Mater and Lightning, huh?”
Diversion was the only thing left for me.
What I wasn’t aware of was that, after watching me fill the fridge and the cupboards with goodies in readiness for our pending Christmas feast, his Dad had said to him, “Oh, son, look at all this fancy food! This is my idea of HEAVEN!”
My son still asks the odd question about heaven, and I still don’t have an adequate response for him. I just hope he is much older before the next one of us shuffles off this mortal coil, because this parenting fail was definitley not my finest hour.