Death Talks with My Four-Year-Old

This summer, my four-year-old son, Manny became obsessed with the number 11. He counts out blocks, toy cars, and candy pieces to 11. He asks what number is bigger 11 or 46, 11 or 4, 11 or 9. He has to know the exact age of all of his cousins, his friends, his aunts and uncles, his grandparents, his dad and me, and how close we all are to the age of 11. And lastly, he wants to know how many years till he turns 11 years old. 

mother in sunglasses holding sonIt didn’t take me long to figure out where his obsession with the number 11 comes from. His older sister Ella, whom he has never met, passed away at the age of 11. She died one year before Manny was born.

The number 11 has caused curiosity, anxiety, and at times fear in my son. However, it has also opened up the door for some pretty interesting and enlightening death talks with my four-year-old.  

My husband and I have been very open with Manny about his sister, Ella, her life and her death. We encourage our son to ask questions about her. We are open about Ella with my son’s teachers, camp counselors, and the parents of his friends, and have given them permission to talk about Ella and her death and their beliefs about death with Manny. Ella’s ashes are stored in an urn we keep on a shelf in the living room surrounded by pictures of Ella and many mementos from her life. We’ve kept several of her toys, her jewelry, and some of her clothes. Manny has taken great pride in wearing Ella’s rain jacket and one of her rings this fall. 

Manny knows that Ella got very sick with pneumonia which caused a viral suppression of her immune system and blood issues leading to her death. I’ve heard him explain this to his friends during playdates when they ask about his sister. One day, I overheard one of his friends ask Manny if Ella was killed by a harpoon strike, and Manny said, “No, she got sick in her lungs and blood and died.” The friend replied, “Oh, I see,” and they moved on to talk about monster trucks. 

Mother and son on a rainbow painted stairwellAt times, I feel like I’m falling down a slippery slope when explaining Ella’s death to Manny. I question if I’ve been too open and fear that I’ve scared him—since he now appears to be fearing the age of 11. 

This summer, Manny was playing on a trampoline with some neighbor friends. The kids started playing a game they called “deadman.” One kid lays in the middle of the trampoline and raises from the dead and chases the other kids. Whoever is caught is now the deadman. Manny had never played the game, when one of the kids started chasing him he got a look of utter fear on his face and began crying and screaming because he was terrified. I ran to him, shaking and holding back tears myself, as I hugged him and told him he was ok. I explained that the kids were just playing a silly game, and no one was going to die. 

I always explain to Manny that most people who get sick with pneumonia will recover and that Ella was special, she was fragile and she wasn’t like most people. Ella had cerebral palsy causing very severe scoliosis that gravely affected her lungs as she got older. When Ella got sick things got serious very quickly. A simple cold put our family in lockdown for over a week until she recovered. 

Still, I wonder… how far can I go when talking about death and my personal beliefs about the afterlife with my 4-year-old? 

I’ve explained and shared my belief with Manny that Ella is an angel watching over us and that we can talk to her any time we want. Just yesterday, during a playdate with the same friend who asked about the harpoon, I overheard a conversation between the boys about “talking to God and Ella.” The friend asked Manny if God had a cell phone or if Ella had a walkie talkie, “Is that how he spoke to them?” Manny explained to the friend that they didn’t need those things to talk because God and Ella are just there, in the clouds, listening when he needs them. 

girl watching sunset while lying on a blanketWhen I hear these conversations, I feel like I should pat myself on the back for a job well done. 

Then the conversation progressed and the boys started talking about wars and how people die in wars. The friend stated that everyone dies.

Manny became very upset and said, “I will never die, I don’t have pneumonia, I’m 4 years old, not 11 years old.”

My heart breaks with these words, and once again, I hold back tears as I rush to comfort Manny and explain again that Ella was special and got very sick and that is why she died. He will not die at the age of 11. I didn’t even touch the idea that yes, indeed, we all will pass away at some point in our lives.  

This is when I question everything I have done with Manny and how I’ve explained our unique family situation to him. I want Ella to be a big part of our lives, but I don’t want to scare my son and push him to talk about subjects that may be beyond his scope of understanding at his young age.

It feels disrespectful to Ella’s memory to “forget” or minimize the tremendous impact she had on our lives. I have a deep need to keep her alive and active in our lives.  

When I was pregnant with Manny a dear friend sent me a book, Rabbityness by Jo Empson. The beautiful book tells the story of Rabbit who was loved and brought joy, music, and color to all the lives he touched. One day Rabbit was missing and never returned, everyone was sad and the forest was very dark without his presence. Until one day, the animals discovered the many gifts that Rabbit left behind, paints to make color and instruments to make music.

This made them think of Rabbit, which made them very happy.

This book has been a wonderful way to start a conversation with my son about his sister’s death. It’s been very helpful for me to move past my own grief and sadness and focus/reframe our conversation on Ella’s amazing life and the legacy of love she left behind. I pull this book out whenever I feel that my son is fixating on the circumstances of Ella’s death, her age, the cause, her disability, and the sadness. 

Ella was and is an eternal bright light who changed her father and me in ways that have brought us closer to spirit, altered our views of the world, sweetened how we interact with each other, and deepened our appreciation for the world we live in. Ella was the embodiment of unconditional love and kindness. Her gentle, graceful spirit has had a lasting effect on anyone who came in contact with her. She was a force of love and light. These are the lasting gifts that I want my son to learn from his sweet sister. 

hands tossing a child up into the skyOften I wonder if I began the death talks too early with Manny and should have only focused more on Ella’s legacy and her life at his young age. However, since I’m pretty sure there is no handbook for death talks with your 4-year-old. I will continue to plug along answering his questions as honestly as I can while dispelling any rumors about harpoon strikes.

Death Talks with My Four-Year-Old

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3 Responses to Death Talks with My Four-Year-Old

  1. Avatar
    Joya January 14, 2020 at 9:46 pm #

    This is a fabulous article. What a tough subject for a 4 year-old to have to wrap his head around. You’ve handled it with honesty, compassion, and love. We miss Ella so much. She was lucky to have you as her parents and Manny is lucky, too.

  2. Avatar
    Diane Saulnier January 14, 2020 at 3:31 pm #

    Julie I think you are doing an amazing job. Manny sounds very bright and thoughtful. As he gets older, more specifics about Ella will help him truly understand her challenges. He is adorable….and he has another cousin who is also 4. Our great grandson Benjamin now lives in Savannah GA. One day they actually get to meet.

  3. Avatar
    Hanna January 14, 2020 at 9:37 am #

    Thank you Julie <3

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