Why did Grandad die? (3-year-old theology)

Kids are amazing for questions! Of course, there is a resounding “why?” that pops up in every single conversation that we have about anything, but I’ve been struck by how many insightful questions my 3-year-old daughter has asked about God and life.

So I thought I’d go ahead and try to give an answer for some of these…

“Why did Grandad die?”

Maybe you’ve already had to answer questions as tough as this one. This is an indirect theological question, but it’s something that your kids will need to know about some day or other.

Perhaps it’s easier if we start with the background. My 3-year-old is asking that question because my father died just a few months before she was born. She’s obviously heard lots about him, we have pictures up everywhere, I’ve told her that he knew she was going to be born and was very excited. He died of motor neurone disease (MND—you may also have heard it called ALS for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) which he’d had for a few years. Obviously, we knew he would die at some point but it came as a shock because at the time he was still very mobile and independent.

But why then? Is my daughter asking, “What caused him to die?” Probably not. Is she asking “Why did God allow him to die?” It’s a good question but I don’t think so—I doubt she’s made the connection. I think her question was really about death itself. Why did Grandad die? i.e. How do people die? Are you going to die, Daddy? Am I going to die?

Now, at this point you may be thinking: This is too much to talk to a 3-year-old about! They shouldn’t have to deal with death at such a young age! I’m not actually convinced that’s true. As a society, we deal with death quite poorly. When it happens we are at a loss, as if we expected this would never happen, though we cognitively know that one day it’s a fate that awaits us all. Maybe if we weren’t hidden from the cause and effects of death, we would not be so rocked when it occurred.

So I said to her: “Grandad got very sick and he died. Lots of the time when people get sick they get better, but sometimes when people get sick they die. You know, even though we’re sad that Grandad died, it’s happy for Grandad because now he gets to be with Jesus all the time. One day each of us will die, and we’ll go to be with Jesus. It’s nothing to be worried about because being with Jesus is the best!”

She happily accepted this explanation and moved on to talk about something else. Generally, we’ll have a few conversations like this before she grasps a concept. But a few weeks later she said to me “Grandad [my grandfather who more recently died] met Grandad [my dad] in heaven and they were so happy to be there with Jesus!”

She brings it up every now and then, and I’m always glad we don’t hide conversation like this from her. As adults, we’re generally too awkward to bring up death and talk about it like we would with any other subject, but my 3-year-old, by ignoring normal social cues, is able to help me process my father’s death without hiding it away.

Maybe there’s more to learn from our children than we thought.

Malcolm

Malcolm Purdey is a Christian, husband, father, student minister and science nerd. He completed a PhD in Chemistry and worked as a research scientist before making the jump into ministry in early 2017. He has been married for 5 years and has two daughters aged 3 and 1.

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