Where’s Grandpa? Explaining Death to a Child By Jennifer Hancock, Later Mom
When my son first encountered death he was three and his grandfather had just died. My husband flew up to help his mom cope with the funeral while I stayed home wondering what, if anything, to tell my son. I was afraid that he would get really upset and I would be home alone not knowing how to comfort him. After a couple of days I gathered up the courage and told him about his grandfather’s death.
It turns out the best practices recommended for talking to a child about death were completely in line with my instincts about how best to handle it. It is important you use the word “death” and don’t substitute a metaphor as that can confuse a young child. Their grandparent went away? Where? Will they see them again? Why not? Death is death. It is easier for the child if we don’t hide it from them.
My son was fine with the initial conversation, but I wasn’t prepared to be discussing it with him off and on for the next two years. At first it freaked me out that my son had become “death obsessed,” but that is not what was going on. As adults, coming to terms with death is hard enough – it isn’t any easier for a child. In fact, coming to terms with death really is a lifelong process. Death isn’t something you can explain or grasp in a single conversation. Kids require several small conversations over a period of years in order to realize that death is part of life.
So first we discussed old people and dying and he was fascinated that people grow old. In fact, he would go up to any old person he met and declare – “You are old!” Good times. Whenever we were out and about and encountered death, we pointed it out and talked about it in a matter of fact way. Here is a dead bee. I wonder how it died.
My son cried quite a bit and still does whenever he thinks of his grandfather. However, we had a big breakthrough when he was 5. One of our cats died. This time he grieved properly. He went through all the stages of grief from denial to bargaining. It was hard to watch him experience grief but we knew that if we tried to ease his pain we would be denying him an important opportunity to experience one of the most painful and yet most profound emotional experiences we humans can have.
The quickest way through grief is to just experience it so we did not allow him to take detours with false hopes that the dead cat would resurrect, be replaced or been seen again in an afterlife. Having gone through this experience, he has a much better understanding of death, but more importantly, he isn’t afraid of it either. People and animals he has loved have died and life goes on. Yes, it is sad and we will always miss them, but at least we got to know and love them when they were alive.
Jennifer Hancock is a later mom who gave birth to her son when she was 40. She is also a Humanist and teaches Humanistic Parenting skills at: http://humanisticparenting.info