The Secret To Teaching Your Child About Death? Dinosaurs
My oldest son was two when my mom died. Two is no age to have to grapple with the reality of death—Granny isn’t here, and she’s never coming back, and everyone you ever love will also go away forever so get used to it—so we ended up couching the bad news in the present, because that was a slightly easier concept for him to grasp. Granny isn’t here now, we said. This seemed to do the trick.
That was two years ago. Last week, however, my son sidled up to me and asked, “What does dead mean?”
And that’s a hell of a thing to put on someone. It’s inconsiderate, frankly. It’s way too big a concept to explain to anyone for the first time. To teach my son the word ‘dead’ would involve teaching him the word ‘alive’. And all he knows is alive. Alive is his default understanding of everything in the entire universe. He knows that things are, because that’s just how everything is. If I’m going to explain ‘dead’, then first he’ll have to understand the impermanence of ‘alive’, and there’s a good chance that doing this would spook the ever-loving shit out of him until the literal end of fucking time.
I’m partly to blame for this. We’ve been reading a book at bedtime called The Runaways, and in retrospect, he’s probably about a year too young for it. I thought it was going to be a fun little yarn about a boy who breaks his grandpa out of the hospital so they can go on a wild cross-generational adventure together.
And it is that, and it’s an absolutely gorgeous book that I couldn’t recommend enough, but it turns out that the boy is only breaking his grandpa out of hospital because his grandpa is dying of a terminal illness and he wants to commune with the spirit of his dead wife one last time while he’s still part of the physical world. So there’s that. It isn’t exactly Peppa Pig.
But the book has got him interested. He’s asked “What does dead mean?” and he’s asked “What is heaven?” which is another pain in the arse, because if I say “It’s bullshit,” then he’ll go to school and tell everyone that heaven is bullshit and they’ll tell all their friends and soon we’ll have a tsunami of crazed, nihilistic reception-class kids on our hands, and Fight Clubs will start popping up willy nilly in branches of Smiggle, and nobody wants that.
Luckily, I think I’ve found the answer. And that answer is dinosaurs. I used to think that kids were fascinated with dinosaurs because they’re massive and scary and loud. But now I’m not so sure. Now, perhaps, I think it’s because they’re all dead. When a kid asks you what all the dinosaurs are doing, you have to reply that they’re not doing anything because they’re extinct. So the kid asks you what extinct means, and you have to reply that it means they aren’t around anymore. They were alive once, but they’re not anymore. If you’re feeling bold enough, you can add that they were wiped out by a gigantic rock that fell from the sky without any warning whatsoever. I haven’t done this, because I want my son to leave the house from time to time, but you can if you want.
Anyway, once you’ve done that—boom—you’ve planted a seed of the understanding of death in their minds. Dinosaurs were, but now they are not. Your child now realizes that things that are will not always be. They haven’t dealt with the tangible life-altering grief of losing somebody they dearly love, but they do know that a tyrannosaurus rex isn’t going to burst into their house and eat their dinner. This is half the battle won.
And from there, with luck, the rest will come naturally. We’ve always kept photos of my mum around the place so that the kids will grow up knowing who she was in relation to everyone else. But a few days ago, after the death discussion, my son sat on my lap and said, “I’m sad because I miss Granny.” It’s the first time that he’s ever really mentioned her absence, and it derailed me slightly.
“Me too,” I eventually replied, and we had a quiet little moment together. Then he stood up and ran off and pretended to be Spider-Man some more. It’s a start.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.