Explaining death to a toddler

It all started when we watched The Lion King for the first time. I was excited to share one of my favorite movies with Anna. We named each animal during Circle of Life, laughed at Zazu, danced to “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and then it happened… Mufasa died.

We watched the solemn images of a collapsed Mufasa and tears streaming down Simba’s face. My daughter turned and looked at me with a questioning stare. She could see Simba was sad and didn’t quite understand what happened. She gestured to the screen and looked at me for an explanation.

I think I said something like “Mufasa is sleeping”. The half-lie euphemism just slipped out of my mouth. I tried to correct it with “Simba is sad, he will miss his dad”.  As I racked my brain for the best words, Scar suddenly came on the screen and ruined my attempt to soften this harsh reality for my daughter.

Scar announces in a matter of fact tone, “the King is dead.”

Anna looked at me again perceiving the sadness on the screen and desiring an explanation. I bumbled some words out, not prepared for the conversation. I assumed my young daughter could not quite understand these things yet. The moment passed and she was soon dancing around the room to Hakuna Matata. I wish I had done a better job explaining this reality.

death

Growing up, my sisters and I were aware of the reality of death. We talked about the relatives who had gone before us, always attended the funerals of family friends, and visited graves whenever we were in the area. I will never forget being 7 years old and coming home to see my mom sitting on the stairs with her head down. She had a similar expression to that of Simba in the scene mentioned above. Her own daddy had died. She sat with me on the stairs and explained the situation in honest, simple, but also comforting words. I could sense this was a sad moment, and knew that my grandpa was gone and not coming back. Through words, actions, and relationships my family did a great job teaching me a healthy view of death. Something to aspire to.

Luckily, my daughter enjoys watching the same movie over and over, so I had an opportunity the next day for redemption. It came quickly like déjà vu, we were sitting there on the floor as Mufasa died and she looked at me with the same questioning face as the day before. I was a little better prepared this time. Here are a few of the key points I offered her in the midst of a lifeless Mufasa.

1.) “He’s dead.” I decided that it was okay to use the “dead” word. It was good for her to understand this new word and that it was different from sleeping or being hurt. Going to sleep is not a sad thing, I wanted her to understand that he was not coming back. The statement felt cold and insensitive, but it was best to give the situation a word.

2.) “Our bodies are fragile” As we introduced this new concept of death it was helpful to discuss some cause and effect. Why did his body die? I explained to Anna that he fell a long way and our bodies have limits, they can break. Everyday Anna learns new things about her body,  and I thought the concept that Mufasa’s body no longer works may make sense to her.

simba

3.) “Simba is sad” The part of this scene that bothered Anna even more than Mufasa’s lifeless body, was the emotion exhibited by Simba. I tried to offer our little one an explanation and validate Simba’s feelings, because the situation is truly sad. Simba was sad because his daddy is gone and he loves his daddy very much.

4.) “People’s bodies die, but our soul lives on.” A conversation about death, even with the youngest learners, is not complete with out a mention of the soul. The hope and truth that death is not the end. I let Anna know that some of the our family’s members have died just like Mufasa and we have hope that their spirit is alive with Jesus in Heaven, and that God has made a place for each of us with him.

It was not perfect, and I am not sure if she caught it all, but I got it out there. Lion King forced me to not only confront death with my daughter, but also with myself. This toddler sized conversation ended up being as meaningful for me as I hope it was for Anna.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. -Albert Einstein

As I look back over the scene of Mufasa dying and these four steps to explain death, I can’t help compare it to the death of Jesus on the cross and explaining Good Friday. As a young child sees Jesus on the cross, these same four lines offer explanation, Jesus is dead, he took on a human body, and it was fragile, his death was hard and sad, but in Jesus’ Christ we all have hope of resurrection.

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Comments

  1. Well that made me cry for my daddy all over again. We will see him when our fragile bodies fail and we live in paradise with our heavenly and earthly daddies. Love you amy

  2. When we used to have a more agrarian lifestyle we had a lot more exposure to death early on, animals were killed for food, others just died, I’ve heard that it helped to prepare kids to understand human death and grieve appropriately, most of us these days don’t get much exposure to death until it is really someone we are close with and of course it is incredibly painful, I was sort of grateful when I had the unexpected opportunity to walk through this topic with my three year old when one of our dogs died. She was right there with me when she died and we read prayers over her. She still talks about it (a year later) and also talks about putting flowers on graves (something she has never actually done). It has really given us a context to understand death, at least on some level, not that it is ever easy. Thanks for your post.

    • What a beautiful and real experience for your daughter.

      What a great idea from your little one. Maybe this year for all souls/saints days we can place flowers on a grave.

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