These are questions commonly asked by younger children who are struggling with the finality of death and how it relates to their concepts of person permanence. Young children have just gotten used to the certainty that things continue existing even when you don’t see them. One of the reasons peek-a-boo seems so magical for babies is that when they don’t see your face, it’s as though you disappeared. Then poof! Suddenly there you are again, much to their delight. (Though I suspect babies are a bit more sophisticated in this regard than we give them credit for.)
The toddler and preschool-age child has mastered person permanence and knows that even when people aren’t around they’re still in existence somewhere. They know that when Mommy’s at work or Daddy’s in the other room, they don’t cease to exist just because the child can’t see them. This law is part of their fundamental understanding of how the universe works, only death now seems to have violated this concept. For them it can see like the equivalent of saying gravity doesn’t work anymore.
So if people don’t stop existing just because they aren’t in the child’s immediate vicinity, then Mommy has to be somewhere. But if she’s not here and isn’t coming around anymore, then where oh where could she be?
The trap in this question is that simply saying, “Mommy’s not coming back” or “Daddy’s not here anymore” doesn’t give them any more information that might help them solve this riddle. Quite the contrary: To a young child, inadequate explanations such as this only leave them feeling more confused and angry. You’re acknowledging Mommy still exists by speaking about her as a normal person, while simultaneously saying she’s not going to be in the child’s life anymore. Which only worsens a child’s sense of abandonment.
Here’s a better approach:
1) Explain that Mommy’s body stopped working, and so we had to put her body into a grave and give it back to the Earth. Then go into whatever you believe about the spiritual aspects of existence after death.
2) Remind children that their parent or loved one didn’t abandon them, and would return if they could. That they would love more than anything to reappear and hold them tight, but that this isn’t possible.
3) Such questions are far more common when caregivers are trying to shield children from death. If you kept them from attending the funeral and have a habit of tap-dancing around the subject to try and avoid the uncomfortable realities of death, it leaves kids little choice but to assume their beloved parent abandoned them. So don’t do this. Be as honest and direct as possible.
This is also one of those questions kids are likely to ask over and over again. So remember what we talked about earlier, and patiently continue to answer each time they ask.
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