Carolyn Hax: Dealing with a 5-year-old’s questions about dying

Carolyn Hax
Columnist January 5

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My 5-year-old has been asking a lot of questions about dying, such as what happens when you die, do you see God, how old are you when you die — which eventually results in a question about whether a young person can die.

Is this normal for the age? I never experienced this with my older child. We have not had a recent death in the family that might trigger these questions.

Anonymous


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

In my experience it’s normal, but any time you’re worried and trying to figure out what the range of normal behavior is for a child, it’s better to ask someone “on the ground” vs. someone in the ether like me, because that person would have the benefit of context and follow-up questions in answering you. Choose someone who knows you and your child, who is a veteran at dealing with matters of child development — teacher, pediatrician, clergy person, a particularly astute parent — and whose judgment you trust.

The 10-buck answer (or free answer, via your local library) is “Lifetimes” by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. It’s a matter-of-fact but gentle way to explain death to a child.

The way I see it — and the way I dealt with it with my kids’ relentless grilling — is that death is an ordinary, natural yet often sad part of life. I did tell them that everything that lives does eventually die, that people die, that most people live lives of more than 70 years, but some die sooner, even children, though that’s very, very rare. I told them that some people believe you see God and some don’t, some believe in heaven and some don’t, and that no one who is alive can be sure — we can only believe.

I also see these larger questions as completely sensible, and answering them truthfully as appropriate, for any child who is trying to process the wider world. Even if they’re years from having to deal with a human death, they’ll still notice an unlucky squirrel in the road.

But, different kids process things differently, so not asking is normal, too.

Dear Carolyn:

I have five siblings. Our widowed, elderly mother lives in a retirement community that requires our financial support to help pay for it (it’s not luxurious by any standards, but clean, comfortable and safe).

One sibling was unemployed last year. So, we let him out of financial support until he was on his feet again. He and spouse are working again (for several months now) but are not providing financial support despite direct requests to do so. Brother has not even acknowledged my most recent request.

I am angry and resentful because, of course, the rest of us have financial obligations, too, and yet we all manage to provide support (by the way, the amount is far less than $100 per month). What can I do to encourage brother to start paying again?

Sibling

Drop it. It’s not right for your brother to duck this without explanation, but he’s doing it, so your choices are either to suck it up or shake him down. Leave it to his conscience and be right with your own — and leave room for the possibility that he just needs more time to catch up.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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