When 5-Year-Olds Talk About Death

Youngest son of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley lays on couch in living room

Last weekend, I drove Tommy and his best friend to a birthday party. They sat in the back seat, chatting about super heroes and I listened to their funny conversation.

“When I grow up, I want to be The Flash,” Tommy said.

“Ya!” his friend said. Then they brainstormed about how Tommy might achieve that goal. It involved eating a lot of funny food and learning special tricks. Their voices were high and sweet, full of excitement about the party and the potential for super hero powers.

As Tommy was dreaming up ideas of what he could do if he became The Flash, he paused and seemed to think of something new. “Hey!” he said, “if I’m The Flash, then maybe I can make my dad be alive again!”

My ears perked up, but I didn’t interject immediately. I wanted to see how he was understanding death these days.

“Can you do that?” his friend asked.

“Maybe, if I’m The Flash,” Tommy said, and then pivoted to a related idea. “Did you know that when you die, your body goes away and it’s just a skeleton left? So my dad is a skeleton!”

The two of them debated how the process of decomposition works. Then, out of nowhere, Tommy said, “I want my dad to come back.”

I turned slightly towards them and said, “I know, Tommy. We all wish Daddy could come back. But when you die, you can’t come back again, even if you are The Flash.”

Tommy frowned. His friend looked a bit pained. They had just concocted a plan to bring Shawn back from the dead, and here I was shattering it moments later.

“Oh!” his friend said, with a smile on his face, “maybe your mom will meet a man and marry again, and then you’ll have a new dad!”

Tommy looked at him like this was the wildest idea he’d ever heard. I want to point out here that Tommy’s friend loves our family, and was in no way trying to make Tommy uncomfortable. I could tell he wanted to try and find a solution for his friend – the one who only moments ago had believed he might be able to bring his dad back to life.

As Tommy’s friend was offering up the idea that Tommy could get a new dad, his voice changed a little bit. I could tell that he was realizing that the situation in our house is a complex one.

Tommy’s friend took a big breath, and said, “But then what happens to Grandpa Tom if you get a new dad? Does he have to go live in another house?”

They both turned to me with worried looks on their faces. I knew it was time to stop letting them dream up crazy ideas and provide them both with some reassurance. Tommy’s friend loves Grandpa Tom too.

I tried to sound matter-of-fact. “First, kids, I am telling you this: Grandpa Tom will always be with us. No matter what. You don’t have to worry about him going away.” I saw them both relax a bit, so I continued, “and second, Tommy won’t get a new dad. Shawn will always be Tommy’s dad, even if I did get remarried. But if that happened, it would be a long time from now. So it’s not something anyone needs to worry about today.”

This seemed to satisfy them, and they went back to discussing other things, like how Tommy could grow up to become The Flash.

I watched them both from the rear-view mirror. I thought about how I certainly didn’t have conversations like this with my friends when I was five. But this is Tommy’s reality – one where he has been faced with mortality at an early age.

I’m not sure what it will mean for him eventually. But I know that right now, it’s hard for him to really grasp what it means for someone to be gone forever.

Sometimes, it seems like Tommy is the one in our family who really gets it. Because, honestly, it’s hard for me to really grasp what it means for my husband to be gone forever.

It’s impossible, and yet it’s true. From the backseat that day, I watched my boy try and understand the world, the one both of us can’t quite figure out anymore.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.

6 Replies to “When 5-Year-Olds Talk About Death”

  1. The young kid thing is such a double edged sword. I’m so glad that Georgia doesn’t (currently) have behavioral problems as a result of losing her dad. But explaining to another kid who told Georgia she didn’t have a dad anymore that Pete will always be her dad was definitely a low point in this widow life. The bluntness of the young kids is sometimes too jarring. I’m impressed with how you handled the whole thing.

    1. Well it’s seriously parenting on the fly! I never quite know what to say, and I stumble through it the best I can. It does get easier, in a way, as they get older and understand other people’s feelings better.

  2. My dad died when I was turning 8. After the unveiling the following year, I said, “We’ll, I thought Dad might be coming back, but there’s no way he can move that big stone!” Loss has always been a part of my life. I have grown into an empathetic person. In college, a writing professor gave us an assignment to identify three important things about ourselves. I included my father’s death, of course. I’m not sure that now, at 54, if it would make the top three. But, when I made new friends through my son’s high school marching band six years ago, I wondered what kind of friends we were when I hadn’t even told them about my dad. It’s just an in-the-fabric part of me. Child logic is amazing. He’s trying to work out the unworkout-able. Thank you for your writing.

    1. Oh, thank you for this. It’s so interesting, how kids understand death, and how they continue to process it throughout their lives – and then how we all process as adults. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Michael Zoosman says: Reply

    Marjorie,

    Thank you for sharing this most touching scene and your thoughtful, eloquent response.

    – Mike

    1. Thanks for reading, my friend.

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