Questions About Death – From A Four Year Old

ed. note: this was written just after the anniversary of Liam’s death in February

Ezra’s understanding about death has made another evolutionary leap. This time, the next level of understanding of permanence has begun to take hold along with an ever growing understanding of the human body. We were told that Ezra would have an always changing comprehension about what happened with Liam, and that the questions would come and go as his relationship to the world grew. But what I wasn’t entirely prepared for was that the questions would come in the style, bluntness, and timing of (in this case) a 4/5 year old. There is no couching the question, or beating around the bush, or waiting for the ‘right time.’ Because with a 4 year old, now is always the right time.

We constantly mention and talk about Liam, so the occasional statement or simple question from Ezra has become expected. He will ask “Liam died right?” Yes. “Why did he die?” Well his heart stopped working. “Ok.” And that would be basically the end of it. Although, we have noticed that his facial expression and word inflection has indicated a change in what he is asking. And that is how it has gone for the better part of the two years since Liam died. Until recently.

Both of us noticed that the questions and comments started coming on his own fruition. Previously, the questions would basically hinge on us talking about Liam, but now his mind is thinking about life and death a lot more on his own. Ahna would get a question in the morning while getting ready for work. Then two weeks ago, I got my first taste of the new thought patterns. We were well into his nighttime routine (which includes getting ready for bed, reading books, and some snuggle time) and laying on our bed quietly for a few minutes. Ezra then broke the silence with a comment that nearly took my breath away. I was headed to work the next morning for my shift at the firehouse, and he said “Daddy, I hope that you don’t die at work.”

I was paralyzed with fear of the question, fear of the answer, and fear of where this might be going. One of the only pieces of parenting advice that I unequivocally adhere to was given to me by my Grandfather not long after Ezra was born: always give honest and truthful answers to every question. Following that advice has led down some awkward conversations in public places about nearly every topic you can imagine (yes, that topic too), and it has forced me to answer him at times when I honestly would rather have not told him the truth. As I laid there digesting what he had just said and trying to formulate an answer, I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. I couldn’t answer that we would be okay at work, because stating that would be an outright lie. But I had to tell him something that would dissolve the worry…argh….might have been the toughest intellectual moment between the two of us ever. I settled on “Thank you, Ezra. We will do our best to be as safe as possible.” And in lieu of all of my worry, of all of my fear of how this would go; he turned right back into a 4 year old: “okay” he said. And for him, that was that.

Fast forward a few days to February 18. If you don’t know, February 18 is the anniversary of Liam’s death, and February 19 is the anniversary of Jonathan’s (my brother) death. This year was the 13th time that we have recognized February 19 this way. These are proving to be a tough set of days as we have now navigated uneasily through two years like this. As you can imagine, February 18 raised the conscious thought of Liam for Ezra rather significantly. That evening, Ezra and I ran to pick up some food and just as we parked the car, the questions began. “Why did Liam die?” “My heart is working ok, right?” And just as we got through that moment, I mentioned that just like that day was the day that he remembered his brother’s death, the next day was a day that I remembered my brother’s death.

This correlation brought a turn that I didn’t prepare for. He looked straight ahead in the car, starring into the distance, thought for a moment, and brought out the next level. “Are you going to die?” “Is [xxxx] going to die?” “I don’t want to die.” “Is your heart ok?” Then the question that I haven’t heard before in this new understanding: “What happened to Liam?” Well, he had brain damage when he was born that lead to his heart not working anymore. “What is brain damage?” “Does Elia have damage?” “Is her heart working okay?” “I don’t want Elia to die.”

The answers followed logic (as best as possible) and included a lot of ‘we are all okay’ and ‘that’s why we got to the doctor’ and a hint but general avoidance of the realities that everyone’s life ends. I could see that broaching that subject would not have been healthy for him – but I tried my best not to lie or to be dishonest. This is the difficulty of these discussions: finding the balance between knowledge, understanding, and emotion. Ezra is starting to carry a lot of thoughtful weight on this matter and I can see it in his actions on the subject. His questions are reaching into areas that are hard to address, but need to be hashed out – in a way that doesn’t cover anything up while not crushing the spirit of a 4 year old. Ezra is smarter and more experienced on this than a lot of adults that I know, and while these conversations will continue for the rest of our lives, I’m not sure that they will ever become easier.


  1. Anonymous says:

    You have a wise Grandfather! Those conversations are hard and I honor you for not telling Ezra the “lie”. That is honorable and so very difficult. May you all be granted the wisdom and courage to continue sharing honest, but painful, answers to Ezra’s growing mind and soul. Blessings and Hugs. Christi

  2. Wow! You guys have some pretty profound moments. And what a thoughtful young man Ezra is. Thanks for sharing your experience. lymi

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