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What 'Play School' Taught My Three Year Old About Death

My mother died very suddenly when I was 27.

I don’t know that anyone can be prepared for something like that, but looking back I feel like I was particularly ill-equipped to handle it. I plunged into a darkness that didn’t really lift until two or three years later, depending on which alienated family member you talk to. (Please don’t talk to any alienated family members.)

I didn’t know how to accept her death -– and I didn’t know how to talk about it without becoming cataclysmically morose and bumming everyone out. Conversely, most people didn’t want to bring the subject of my mother up with me because they didn't know what to say and because they feared that it would be a huge downer -- even though all I wanted to do was talk about her.

But one way or another, I will also be dead one day -- a fact that starts to have much more gravity when you become a parent.

The thought of leaving my children on this planet without me, even if they’re 50 years old, is overwhelming. Achingly sad. I imagine them lost, crippled and unable to cope -- like I was.

But maybe it doesn't have to be that way.

Starting the conversation early. (Image: Getty)

According to initiatives like The Groundswell Project, whose mission is to “create a world where everyone knows how to deal with death”, more conversation is the answer. Sixty percent of Australians, who think that we don’t talk about death enough, agree.

So does Play School. In an upcoming episode, the show is attempting to introduce the concepts of birth and death to preschoolers.

I watched the episode 'Beginnings and Endings' with my three-year-old son, who will be four next month.

Now, as far as I can tell, the boy is not aware that death lurks around every corner. That its icy cold hand could reach out and take us as we scroll through Instagram while crossing the street, or add a little extra weight to the barbell at the gym, or just put on pants while driving on the highway.

Based on his passion for Paw Patrol and an unmanageable Ooshie collection, I assumed he wasn't ready to face that kind of hard reality. So as we watched the episode, I asked him questions to see if he could understand what was happening.

At the beginning, he seemed to understand that one of the hosts, Emma, was pregnant…

What’s in the lady’s tummy?

A baby. When I was a baby, I was in Mama’s tummy.

Do you want a younger brother or sister?

I want a baby brother and a baby sister and a real dog.

Well, that’s not happening.

Then the show took a darker turn -- we heard about these happy-go-lucky twins whose puppy had died...

"Time to get a new dog, twins"- my three-year-old. (Image: ABC)

The twins say their puppy died.

That’s not nice.

What happened to their puppy?

It got sick.

And then what happened?

It died.

What does that mean?

You have to get a dog again.

I’ll say this about my boy: he’s nothing if not practical. Then the hosts introduced a teddy bear, Little Ted, who was feeling sad because his goldfish died.

Why is Little Ted feeling sad?

His fishy is gone.

What happened to the fishy?

It got out and died.

Thankfully, Little Ted got some help from his friends, who cheered him up…

Little Ted insists his friends sit below him. (Image: ABC)

Who helps you when you feel sad?

My friend.

Who was this friend that he was leaning on so heavily with such macabre topics and intense feelings? And what was he getting so sad about? Was it the Ooshies?

The hosts then took us through the book Sophie, which has to be one of the saddest books I’ve ever had read to me, aside from The English Patient. It’s about a girl and her grandpa, who -- spoiler alert -- dies. And all there is is emptiness and sadness for Sophie.

I’m barely holding it together right now writing about it -- and I didn’t do much better when I tried to make it relatable for my son...

What happened to Grandpa?

He died.

What does that mean?

He’s dead.

So where did he go?

In the house.

“And then there was no Grandpa.” (Image: ABC)

Not the answer I thought I was going to get, so I tried to switch gears...

Who’s your grandpa?

You.

No. I’m your father.

Awkward silence.

At this point, it seemed like sadness as a concept didn’t mean that much to my son. If he thought any of what he was watching was sad, he didn’t show it.

Then the co-host Alex talked about how his beloved grandmother died and showed us his scrapbook. I was getting more and more sad and eventually worked up the courage to ask the boy about my mother, who he’ll never meet...

Co-host Alex makes a scrapbook to celebrate his grandmother's life. (Image: ABC)

What happened to the TV man’s grandmother?

She died.

How many grandfathers do you have?

Two.

And how many grandmothers do you have?

One.

Why is that?

Because your mum died.

I was in tears, devastated. He seemed totally fine.

That’s right.

Can I go?

At this point, my three year old clearly doesn't understand that death doesn’t just mean going into the house or that it’s time to “get another dog”. But with more of these kinds of conversations, he could gradually learn that death is perhaps the biggest part of life.

And maybe he’ll have an easier time processing it, and eventually accepting it, than I ever did.

Play School: Beginnings and Endings airs on ABC KIDS on 19 August at 9am. It is currently streaming on ABC iview.