The Meaning of Death

As we prepared for bedtime one recent night, my four-year-old daughter, Emily, asked me a question that I was surprised to come from a such a young girl.

She innocently and earnestly asked me, “Daddy, why do we have to die?” 

At first, I was taken aback at her sudden interest in our mortality. What do you say to a four-year-old about why people die? My first instinct was to brush the question off so we wouldn’t need to get in a complicated discussion right before she went to sleep. However, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to help her learn the meaning of death.

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“How did you think of that question?” I asked her.

“I don’t know. It just came in my head,” she replied.

“Well, we all have to die. Everyone dies. When people get too old, they die. My Grandma and Grandpa died when they got too old and so did Mommy’s.”

“But why did they have to die? I don’t want Grandma and Grandpa to die,” she declared. Emily was clearly interested in getting to the bottom of this topic.

“Don’t worry, Grandma and Grandpa won’t die for a long time. They’re still healthy and happy. But eventually they’ll have to die, just like my Grandma and Grandpa died.” I hoped my answer would calm her concern.

“I know Grandma and Grandpa won’t die, but I don’t want them to die. And I don’t want you and Mommy to die.”

“Mommy and I are still young so we’ll be living for a long time. But everything has an end. Eventually we all die. Without death there would be no life. It’s just like the trees in the winter. Their leaves get brown and dry and fall down to the ground. The leaves have died, but once spring time comes around, the blossoms and new leaves come out and the tree is new again.”

“So the tree leaves fall down and new leaves come out?”

“Yup, just like the tree leaves, people die to make room for new life for babies and kids like you and all the other kids who are growing up.”

“But I don’t want to die, Daddy.”

At this point in our discussion, the sudden thought of her own death caused her to start crying. She quickly wiped her tears away, but it was clear that she was afraid of death. She had rolled over to the side of the bed with her back towards me. I gently rubbed her back to help comfort her while she tried to make sense of it all.

“Everyone needs to die someday, Emily. But you won’t die for a long, long time. You’re still a little kid. You’ve got a whole long life ahead of you,” I reassured her.

“But I don’t want to die and I don’t want you and Mommy to die. Why do we have to die?”

“Don’t worry, even when Mommy and Daddy die, we’ll always be with you and looking down on you from heaven.”

“What’s heaven, Daddy?”

“It’s where everyone who dies goes to be with God in their new life. So, when I die, I can be with my Grandma and Grandpa again. And when you die, you can be with us again.”

“So heaven is where we go after we die?”

“Yes, sweetie, even though we die, we have new life because God will take care of us. So there’s nothing to worry about. Now go to bed. It’s getting late.”

And with that, she rolled on her side, calmed down after her questions were answered. I hoped that my explanation was the right one for her at that moment and that it had been simple enough for her to understand.

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Death is a hard subject that we don’t really think about until we are forced to. In my case, that time came when my four-year-old daughter asked me the simple question, “Why do we have to die?”

Without death, there would be no life. We are all guaranteed the fate of dying, but some people never actually live the life that has been given to them. The prospect of death motivates us to really live and cherish the precious moments we have with the people who mean the most to us. Death is something not to be feared, but rather something that should be appreciated for it’s true meaning. Death gives us the courage to live our lives to the fullest and do the the work that is most fulfilling to us. In the end, death is a destination that we all share to inspire us to make the most of the journey to get there.

But perhaps my four-year-old daughter summed it up best before she fell asleep that night after I asked her the original question she had for me, “So, Emily, why do we have to die?”

She matter-of-factly replied, “Because we need new life.” 

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Cliff Hsia is a writer, husband, and father, who is determined to live a better than normal life by traveling the world, slowly and purposefully, with his wife and two young daughters. His writing has been featured on MSN, TODAY, The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and other publications. He writes about travel, parenting, and lifestyle design.

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