Talking about death and…. koalas

Not exactly sure how to talk to kids about difficult stuff like death. My grandfather, who lived overseas, died some time ago. I was not sure how to present this news to Koopa without making him too distressed. So one day, after picking him up from school, I waited for a moment when I had his undivided attention, and just shared the news with him. He studied my serious and sad face, looking a little nervous, as if measuring up my emotions and trying to adjust his own, didn’t say anything. We had talked about death before, in quite simple terms, he knows that all living things die, people grow old and die, but he never encountered it, and so there was no reason to discuss it in much detail. So I don’t know what was going on through his mind when I told him the news. He was silent for a little while, then inquired if my grandma was ok. I said yes, she is. Will she live alone now? Yes, she will live alone now. And that seemed to be it. After that he seemed satisfied with the conversation and ready to go about his five-year-old business.

But as it often happens with five-year-olds, after he digested the information, he was ready for more. Several hours later, unprompted, he suddenly asked “Where will I go when I die?” “You mean you want to know where my grandpa is now?” – I rephrased his question, probably for my sake, because it was easier to handle it this way. I paused because I realized just how poorly prepared I was for this question. I wished I had rehearsed or something, beforehand, or read some stuff about how to answer such questions. I wished I was religious or at least held some deep beliefs about this stuff, that would give me something coherent to say, and that would help him feel safe. But I didn’t have anything like this. So I said honestly and probably quite unhelpfully “I don’t know. Nobody knows for sure what happens to people when they die.” From the look on his face I wasn’t sure if my answer was too terrifyingly uncertain for his five-year-old mind, or if the uncertainty of it just made it meaningless. I decided that maybe offering some concrete ideas would make it more easily digestible, so I added: “Some people believe that when people die, they don’t disappear completely, but they turn into something, like a tree or an animal.” He was quiet. Then I asked “What do you think?” hoping it won’t be too burdensome of a question for him. It wasn’t. He immediately frowned his eyebrows and held his index finger to his forehead as if trying to solve a math problem of intermediate complexity, and a moment later announced, very seriously, “I think he turned into a koala!” “A koala?” I barely managed to suppress a chuckle. Certainly didn’t expect to hear that. “Why?” “Well because its one of my four favorite animals (he started counting on his fingers): panda, mouse, rabbit and koala!” he explained quite reasonably.

Well, it’s all clear then, I guess. I’m so glad this all went so smoothly. And I’m proud of myself I managed to explain death to my five-year-old. I’m just hoping he won’t go around telling people that, according to his mom, his great-grand-dad turned into a koala.

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