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Do We Really Need To Explain Death To Our 3-Year-Old?

I know even at our ages, Frankie and I don't like to think about death.

08/14/2017 15:20 EDT | Updated 08/14/2017 15:31 EDT

The other morning we woke up to our son's beloved Blue Fish laying on the bottom of his fish bowl. For a week now, the fish wasn't his normal self. Blue Fish would bury himself under the rocks and hardly swim around. We knew something was wrong with him. He was normally quite active and would always come say hello every morning when we fed him.

This was Milo's first pet. He was so excited to go to the pet store to pick him out. He knew right away which one he wanted and we bought a bowl, food and some rocks, and we were ready to go. We asked Milo what he wanted to name his fish, and immediately he said, "My fishy's name is Blue Fish!" (The fish was blue of course!) Milo would laugh and stare at him in the fishbowl swimming around. He would feed him and would also help us clean out the bowl.

Getty Images/Onoky

The morning when Milo found out that Blue Fish wasn't alive anymore, we told him Blue Fish had died during the night. He immediately began crying and said, "I miss him! Why is he not swimming?!" We were surprised by his reaction. We didn't expect him to even understand the word death. We are always taken aback at this age, with the depth of our three-year-old's understanding of language, especially words we do not use very often.

Some of his favourite movies like The Lion King, Finding Nemo and Big Hero 6 include scenes about death, but Milo had never reacted to them or asked us about it. Some of our friends tell us their kids get very upset when they watch these scenes, but we have never seen Milo react to them, so it was a surprise to us when he cried that morning.

How do we explain the concept of death to our three-year-old? Do we really need to at all? Does he really need to understand death at such a young age? I know even at our ages, Frankie and I don't like to think about death; why would I want my son to think about something that is so sad?

But we had to tell him something, because he wanted to know why we were putting Blue Fish down the toilet. What language would we use so he could understand? How much in detail do we go?

Eventually when he gets older, we can get into more detail about death and what it means.

We talked about it briefly with each other before explaining it to Milo. We decided since he is only three years old, keeping it short and simple would be the best way.

We have watched Finding Nemo many times, and in one scene in the movie Gill says to Nemo, "All drains lead to the ocean, kid." We thought we could use this idea that the toilet drain goes to the lake, so we would bring Blue Fish to the toilet to flush him.

We explained to Milo that Blue Fish got very sick and it was time for him to return to his family. Sometimes animals and people get very sick, and they need to go back with their family members that are waiting for them so they can take care of them again. We all said something nice about Blue Fish before sending him back to be with his family. Before flushing Blue Fish, Milo says,"Bye, Blue Fish. I love you!" Whenever we talk about going to the beach, Milo says, "We can see Blue Fish!"

Did he fully understand the concept? We don't know for sure. But what we do know is that he knows Blue Fish is gone and it was time for him to return to his family. And he was OK with that.

We were actually pretty surprised how well Milo took the news of Blue Fish passing. It could've gone either way. He could have had a difficult time with it and cry, or handle it the way he did. We were happy he went for the latter. We feel that explaining death to a toddler, keeping it simple is best. Eventually when he gets older, we can get into more detail about death and what it means, but for now, we feel this is all he needs to know. And he gets it.

Death is a part of life and we will all experience it at some point. Whether it be the death of a pet or a loved one, we should all love and appreciate everyone and everything in our lives while we have the opportunity to do so — before they are gone.

A version of this blog originally appeared on Family is About Love.

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