When a Grandchild Asks, ‘Are You Going to Die?’

My granddaughter was a few months past 3 years old when she first asked the question, as we sat on the floor playing with blocks.

“Bubbe, are you going to die?”

Nobody is as blunt as a toddler. “Yes, I am going to die one day,” I said, trying to remain matter-of-fact. “But probably not for a very long time, years and years.”

A pardonable exaggeration. Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) was 70, but to a kid for whom 20 minutes seemed an eternity, I most likely did have a lengthy life expectancy.

My granddaughter, Bartola (a family nickname, a nod to the former Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon), was beginning to talk about the deceased ladybug she found at preschool. Make-believe games sometimes now featured a death, though a reversible one: If an imagined giant gobbled up a fleeing stuffed panda, he would just spit it out again.

So I wasn’t shocked by what a psychologist would call a developmentally appropriate question. I did mention our conversation to her parents, to be sure they agreed with the way I handled it.

Such questions resurfaced from time to time, even before something she knows as “the virus” closed her school and padlocked the local playground. Though her parents talk about hand-washing and masks in terms of keeping people safe, not preventing death, even preschoolers can pick up on the dread and disruption around them.

Long before the pandemic, it occurred to me that grandparents can play a role in shaping their beloveds’ understanding of death. The first death a child experiences may be a hamster’s, but the first human death is likely to be a grandparent’s.

With tens of thousands of young Americans now experiencing that loss — most coronavirus fatalities occur in people who are grandparent-aged — it makes sense to talk with them about a subject that’s both universal and, in our culture, largely avoided.

Parents will shoulder most of that responsibility, but “grandparents have lived a long time,” said Kia Ferrer, a certified grief counselor in Chicago and a doctoral fellow at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, a graduate school in child development. “They’ve been through historical periods. They’ve lost friends.” We’re well positioned to join this conversation.

But that requires setting aside our own discomfort with the topic when talking to children. “It’s symptomatic of our society that we get nervous about what we tell them and how we’ll react,” said Susan Bluck, a developmental psychologist at the University of Florida who teaches courses on death and dying.

“But if they’re asking questions, they want to know,” she added. If we shy away, thinking a 4-year-old can’t handle the subject, “the child is learning that it’s a bad thing to ask about.”

We want kids to understand three somewhat abstract concepts, Dr. Bluck explained: that death is irreversible, that it renders living things nonfunctional, that it is universal.

We don’t need to prepare a lecture. “Only answer what they’re asking and then shut up,” advised Donna Schuurman, former executive director of The Dougy Center in Portland, Ore., which works with grieving children. “Listen for what they’re thinking. Let them digest it. The next response might be, ‘OK, let’s go play.’”

What and how much our beloveds understand depends on their ages and development, of course. Kids Bartola’s age will have trouble grasping ideas like finality.

They also tend to be awfully literal: My daughter, who knew better but spoke in the moment, once explained the Jewish custom of sitting shiva by saying that the family was going to keep their sad friend company because she had lost her father. “She lost him?” Bartola said wonderingly. “Did he blow away?” Oops, take two.

But 5- to 7-year-olds can think more abstractly. “That’s when they start understanding the cycle of life and the universality of death,” Ms. Ferrer said. And kids 8 to 12 “have an adultlike understanding,” she said, and may want to know about specifics like morgues and funeral rites.

What each age requires of us, experts say, is honesty. Euphemisms about grandpa taking a long trip, being asleep or going to a better place, create confusion. If someone died of illness, Ms. Schuurman advises naming it — “she got a sickness called kidney failure” — because kids get sick too, and we don’t want them thinking every ailment could be fatal.

Ms. Ferrer talks about a loved one’s body not working anymore, and medicine not being able to fix it. Even kindergartners know about toys that no longer work and can’t be repaired.

Nature can be helpful here. On walks, I’ve started pointing out to Bartola the flowers that bloom and then die, the leaves changing color and falling. A lifeless bird in the driveway presents an opportunity to talk about how it can’t sing or fly anymore.

Ms. Schuurman endorses small ceremonies for dead creatures. Wrap the bug or bird in a handkerchief or put it in a box; say a few words and bury it. “Let’s honor this little life,” she said. “It sets an example of reverence for life.”

Psychologists favor allowing children to attend the funerals of beloved humans, too, with proper preparation. In some families, religious beliefs will inform the way adults answer children’s questions.

The professionals I spoke with suggested some material to help grandparents with this delicate task. Ms. Ferrer is a fan of Mr. Rogers’s 1970 episode on the death of a goldfish and the 1983 “Sesame Street” episode in which Big Bird comes to understand that Mr. Hooper isn’t ever coming back.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 5, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

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      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

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      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


As for death in Disney movies — because some kids’ introduction might come from “The Lion King” or “Moana” — several emphasize memory as the way the departed stay with us.

For advice on books, I turned to my friend Marjorie Ingall, who reviews children’s books for The New York Times Book Review.

For the littlest kids, she’s a fan of Todd Parr’s “The Goodbye Book,” in which a fish dies and his fish friend mourns. And of “Big Cat, Little Cat” by Elisha Cooper.

For children in preschool and the early grades, she loves (“it’s gorgeous”) the just-published “A Last Goodbye,” by Elin Kelsey with illustrations by Soyeon Kim, and “Ida, Always” by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso. And a Danish book called “Cry, Heart, but Never Break,” by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi.

Ingall-approved books on death for the middle grades include favorites like “Charlotte’s Web,” “Bridge to Terabithia” and a picture book, “Duck, Death and the Tulip,” by the German author Wolf Erlbruch. “It feels like an Ingmar Bergman film but I think it’s hilarious and it makes death a part of living,” she said.

Over the years, we’ll get multiple opportunities to have these conversations, in increasingly sophisticated ways, so we needn’t worry that we’ve missed or blown a single chance.

The next time Bartola wants to better understand death, I will wish I had Dr. Bluck strolling alongside us.

Because the follow-up question will eventually arise. Bartola will ask, am I going to die?

“Yes, but probably not for a long time,” was Dr. Bluck’s suggested response. “You get to be one of the living creatures, just like me, just like the butterfly in the garden, just like that big oak tree we just walked past. And then we all die, too.”

I aspire to be as truthful, and as eloquent.

Paula Span writes the New Old Age column in the Science section of The New York Times.

Source: nytimes.com

Tags: health

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