How Do I Answer Questions About Death?

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Dear Miriam, 

My 4-year-old has recently started asking age-appropriate questions about death. I think I’ve handled the generic questions okay. But I just listened to my mom read her The Story of Passover, and I’m worried about answering her questions about the 10th plague this year. Since I’m giving her honest answers about death on one level, I don’t know how to mesh my approach with the story of the holiday. She is also a kid who will not give up asking until she’s satisfied with the answer. What can I say?


Problematic Plagues


Dear Problematic,

On the one hand, this is a question about how to talk to children about death. In that case, I advocate honesty, with a caveat: Don’t answer questions that your child isn’t asking. So if she asks if everything dies, the answer is yes. But if she doesn’t ask if you are going to die someday (or a beloved pet or any other specific individual living thing), there’s no need to provide that information. 

On the other hand, this is a question about religion. In that case, I advocate providing lots of perspectives and resources and encouraging kids to continue asking questions. Q: “Does God really make miracles?” A: “Well, what do you think?” Q: “Did the plagues really happen?” A: “What can we learn from the story of the plagues, whether they were real or not?” Q: “Why can’t I eat bread during Passover?” A: “Let’s read these stories about other kids who celebrate Passover.”

In any case, talking about the tenth plague can be difficult and uncomfortable. But remember, it’s mostly difficult and uncomfortable for you because you have an entire lifetime of societal discomfort with death to contend with. You are setting the tone for your daughter, though. If you shy away from her questions and act as uncomfortable as you might feel, she’ll certainly pick up on that. In reaction, she may ask more questions or she may worry that she did something wrong by asking, or she may have some other strong reaction you like even less than talking about death because that’s what four-year-olds specialize in. 

By contrast, if you are calm and prepared and do more listening than talking, she’ll experience both the topic of death and the topic of religion as things that she can discuss with you. More than relaying any actual content, if her takeaway is that you are a safe person to talk to about any topics, you’ve had a huge parenting success. There is, of course, a lot of theology you could get into if you wanted to provide more content, but at age four, reading age-appropriate books and listening to any part of the seder will give her more than enough to think about. 

While we’re at it, while Passover is just over a month away, Purim is next week. Though Purim is often presented as a family holiday, what with the costumes and carnivals, the actual Megillah is full of violence and bloodshed and not even remotely kid-friendly. We all tell ourselves – and our children – easier versions of stories to ease into difficult topics and, yes, to make ourselves feel better. But whether it’s through the lens of Purim, Passover, a family pet, or an animated movie, talking about death is impossible to avoid. The more comfortable you can be (or pretend to be), the better equipped your daughter will be in facing the topic and facing what life brings her way.

Be well,