The Spider in the Toilet: How to Explain Death to Children

How to Explain Death to Children.

A couple weeks ago, our neighbor, Mr. Smith, passed away. He was in his nineties and lived a rich life. After my husband and I visited Mr. Smith’s wife to offer our condolences, our three year old daughter, Arden, asked what happened to him.

He passed away, I said.

What does that mean?

It means he’s in heaven.

Is he there alone?

No, he’s with Jesus.

These questions continued and, because I was unprepared to think of a clever, age-appropriate answer Arden could understand, my responses were circular.

He died. He passed away. He went to heaven. He’s with Jesus.

Over and over again.

Fast forward two days.

Arden discovered a spider in the downstairs bathroom and asked me to get rid of it. I smashed it with a rolled-up magazine, picked up the remains with toilet paper, and flushed Daddy Long Legs down the commode.

Despite watching me get rid of the spider, Arden asked where he (she?) went.

The spider passed away.

Where is he?

He’s in heaven.

Long, painful pause.

Is Mr. Smith also in the toilet?

I was stupefied and speechless. I looked at my husband for help. Say something. Something. What do I say?

Please, God, don’t let Arden ask Mr. Smith’s widow if her husband is in the toilet next time we run into her at the mailbox.  

Explaining death is difficult. I’m not sure the majority of adults like to think about it. I sure don’t.

Death makes me feel uncomfortable because it forces me to think about my own mortality.

When will it happen? Will I have enough time to reach my goals? Will I be able to say goodbye to the people I love? Will it be on an airplane?

Lord, please don’t let it be on a plane. (I hate flying. My parents let me watch La Bamba when I was little and it ruined me.)

How will my family feel? Will they get over it quickly or remain in a dark emotional slumber that lasts years? Will my husband remarry?

I hope he remarries. And it’s to a woman who gets as annoyed as I did (do?) every time he puts wet bath towels on the floor. So he can see I wasn’t being irrational.

Will my girls call her “mom” or call her by her first name?

Will she know what to do or say when my girls lose a tooth, get their periods, or ask their dad for money to go on Spring Break in Cancun when they’re in college? (I will haunt them if I see them taking shots at a foam party at Señor Frog’s.)

And here I am getting ahead of myself just like I always do. Overthinking.

But how does someone explain death to a three year old? Kids don’t understand things they can’t see.

I remember my mother trying to explain death to me when I was a young child. My first brush with death that legitimately affected my family happened when my mom unexpectedly lost her sister, Mary, to diabetes. This was different than the roadrunner running off the cliff. This was real. We would never see Aunt Mary again. She was gone. My mother said people who die never come back or see anyone ever again. It was a forever type of thing.

And I understood all I needed to understand. Not coming back. Permanent.

Mr. Smith’s death introduced the first in what will be a line of many difficult conversations that will happen while my kids are little. I just didn’t expect it would happen this soon and I wanted to be prepared, Goshdarnit.

I’m not sure if they way I explained death to Arden was the best way to explain it. But it was my real and honest answer. Sure, I could hop on Amazon and buy one of the zillion “Talking to Your Kids About Death” books, read up on the issue, and give Arden a perfect, airbrushed answer. But it wouldn’t be my answer. It would be someone else’s answer. And I don’t want that.

With raising kids, the parents struggling to explain a difficult concept is as important as the child trying to understand it. Sometimes it’s important for the parents to admit when they don’t really understand why or how something happened. Everyone gets to have their “a-ha! moment”.

A time will come when my husband and I will have to explain controversial events, ideas, and ideologies to our children that make The Spider in the Toilet seem like Disneyworld. And when we do, I don’t want to be too prepared. I want the response to be authentic and unrehearsed, just the way I want my kids to be in their daily lives.



    19 Comments on The Spider in the Toilet: How to Explain Death to Children

    1. Sara Glomski
      September 24, 2015 at 8:42 pm (7 years ago)

      Great post! So hard. My boys know very little about death other than smashing a fly. Over the summer, Tyler was rough housing and held Jake under water in the pool and I freaked out and said, “He can’t breath under water and he can die!” Yikes. They talked about that for a while.

    2. Diane
      September 15, 2015 at 2:27 pm (7 years ago)

      LOLOLOLOL Arden is the best with her questions!!!! She’s going to be following in her lawyer mama’s footsteps! Rest in Peace sweet Mr. Smith!

    3. Melinda
      September 9, 2015 at 10:56 pm (7 years ago)

      Oh, bless her heart! They see the world so literally, don’t they?
      So hard, but you’re doing great.
      Here from Tuesday talk.

    4. Stephanie Miller
      September 9, 2015 at 9:39 am (7 years ago)

      Love the post and the message. So right in how important discussing important issues are for kids. Also, great title! It grabbed me in when I had not planned on reading. So glad I read it though!!

      • jenniferdaku
        September 9, 2015 at 8:54 pm (7 years ago)

        You are so sweet, Stephanie! Thanks for the feedback and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    5. Deena
      September 8, 2015 at 10:29 pm (7 years ago)

      Your post is SO timely! Just today I took G to the cemetary to visit my mom for her bday. As G was putting flowers down at the grave she said “and when you get out of heaven we can eat your cake!” I have previously explained death in much of the same circular conversations you had with Arden, but I realized today that she still doesn’t understand the permanence. I’m relieved to know other kids are inquiring too- no one wants to be the parent of the kid explaining death on the playground!?

      • jenniferdaku
        September 9, 2015 at 8:57 pm (7 years ago)

        Deena, Thanks for the feedback! It does break my heart that your mom isn’t here to celebrate big events (or even small ones) with you, but I can guarantee she’s smiling down and is darn proud of what an incredible person you turned out to be. I hope you guys make it to Tampa sometime soon because I miss seeing you in person (and our face-to-face would you fathers). Cheers!

    6. Meagan
      September 8, 2015 at 2:06 pm (7 years ago)

      This is a really tough thing for parents to teach kids about. I will definitely have remember all the great things you put in this article when I have kids. My nieces recently lost their cat and had a hard time with it. I think their parents struggled with explaining it to them. I can’t even imagine how it would be to explain someone close to you.

      • jenniferdaku
        September 8, 2015 at 8:30 pm (7 years ago)

        Explaining the loss of pets and the loss of people go hand-in-hand. Thanks for your thoughts, Meagan!

    7. Joanna @ Motherhood and Merlot
      September 8, 2015 at 12:53 pm (7 years ago)

      Haha I am dying laughing reading this. Thankfully my girls have the same fear of insects that I do… but we did have to explain a dead bird outside to them once. That was a sad day. We had to say a prayer for the bird.

      • jenniferdaku
        September 8, 2015 at 8:31 pm (7 years ago)

        Maybe we should show our kids the movie “All Dogs go to Heaven?” That might make things easier. Thanks for your input, Joanna!

    8. Ali A
      September 8, 2015 at 12:18 pm (7 years ago)

      I know this is a serious subject matter (and also a great post) but THIS made me LOL: “I hope he remarries. And it’s to a woman who gets as annoyed as I did (do?) every time he puts wet bath towels on the floor. So he can see I wasn’t being irrational.”

      • jenniferdaku
        September 8, 2015 at 8:32 pm (7 years ago)

        Is it sick that it’s one of the primary reasons’s I’d want to remarry?! Haha. Honesty hurts. Cheers, Allison!

      • Ginny Veit
        September 8, 2015 at 11:20 pm (7 years ago)

        That was my favorite part too! I agree that I’d love my husband to live with someone else and have them complain even more than I do about the annoying (ie gross) things he does.

        I love your blog, Jen. I haven’t commented before, but I do read regularly. 🙂

        • jenniferdaku
          September 9, 2015 at 8:56 pm (7 years ago)

          Ginny, you are THE BEST. Thanks so much for reading my blog regularly and for the positive feedback, it means a lot to me coming from you. And yes, I think some men are unaware of “how good they have it” with their wives… Cheers!

    9. Kate
      September 8, 2015 at 9:33 am (7 years ago)

      I have always wondered how I will handle the is conversations when they come up. My mom always believed in being honest with us kids. Sometimes maybe too honest. Great topic!

      • jenniferdaku
        September 8, 2015 at 12:07 pm (7 years ago)

        Thanks, Kate! I agree honestly is usually the best policy, but not always the easiest!

    10. Aja
      September 8, 2015 at 7:55 am (7 years ago)

      I’ve been married 10 years and my travels-for-work husband continues to ask me “why are you so scared? What do you think is going to happen?” and always seems surprised when I answer “the plane is going to crash and I’m going to die and never see the kids again.” I mean, why else would I be so scared?!?

      My kids (4&6) usually bring up heavy topics at 7am before I’ve had a full cup of coffee. I’ve had to explain the homeless crisis and answer heavy questions of our faith on the way to school more times than I can count. I say a quick prayer for help, answer as best I can, and silently wonder why Daddy didn’t drop them off that morning. ?

      • jenniferdaku
        September 8, 2015 at 12:08 pm (7 years ago)

        LOL! So true. Now you can add “difficult conversationalist” to your resume of mom expertise. Thanks Aja!