Raising Grieving Children

How children can survive the death of a loved one.

When Grandpa Is Dying

How to explain death to a 3-year-old

Several weeks ago I received an email from a colleague who is fairly well informed about issues related to grief. She asked me how to help a friend explain to her 3-year-old daughter that her grandfather is in the hospital and is dying. I was struck with the fact that even the seemingly well-informed among us are often at a loss for words. I wrote to her as a colleague who had studied children’s reactions to a parent’s death. I wrote as a grandmother who tried to help explain to my two year old grandchild that her dog was dying and watched her, now as an 8 year old, quietly and comfortably join us in prayer at a graveside service for her great aunt. I wrote also from my own experience of being “protected," as a 3-year-old, by my parents from learning that my grandfather was dying, and did in fact die. We learn from each other and we learn from our own experience.

What did I tell my colleague? The words at this point came easily. A good thing about email is that I could go back and see what I wrote. Part of this mother’s problem was that she had just given birth to another daughter in a hospital, and she was concerned about how she could explain to her three year old that her grandfather might die in a hospital. This is what I said:

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I suggested that she start by saying that grandpa Is very sick and in the hospital. She has to go on to explain that hospitals are places where many things happen. Good things happen and things that make us unhappy. It is a place to give birth to a baby. Hospitals are also places where people who are sick go for treatment. Sometimes the treatment doesn’t work. Doctors can fix many things, but not everything. When people are very sick they don’t always feel comfortable with children visiting. Grandpa might like to hear from her. She can make him a card to tell him she is thinking about him. I assumed that her daughter knows that flowers die, and she could ask what else does she know about dying? There are the changing seasons and she could see the trees losing their leaves. Three-year-olds don’t get it completely ... at her age she won’t understand that death is forever and that people don’t come back. If he dies she needs to be told that grandpa died, using simple words and  include the word “died” in what she says. Three-year-olds will ask many times when grandpa is coming back, and many times mother will have to patiently say that this will not happen.

I also told her to go to the Children’s Room at the Public Library in her neighborhood and ask the librarian there for help in finding books for a 3-year-old that deal with death. There are some excellent books that might help her begin to understand, and that might help mother as well, with her own grief. If there is a church service or a memorial service I would take a three year old providing there is someone who is comfortable with death accompanying her, answering questions she might have, and leaving if she gets too uncomfortable staying too long. Here she may be able to hear good things about her grandfather that she will want to remember. She may have something to add. It may be several years before she understands that we all, in time, die.

Mother had also mentioned to my friend that at her daughter’s pre-school the children were talking about death. To me that meant they already knew and the teachers need to get some books to read and let them simply talk. The teacher has to also say they can ask questions and she will try to answer.

As I was answering this request I was also writing a paper, and the subject of how important it is to remember the deceased came up. Helping children mourn and to see themselves as a family member who is grieving as well, is a good first step in helping them remember. It took me many years before I realized that some of my sadness, that I could not understand, was related to the loss of my grandfather. My family’s intention to protect me was how they understood my needs as a child, but in so doing they deprived me of knowing what happened to my grandfather and of sharing my grief with them.

Perhaps learning how to include children in all the life cycle events that happen in a family should be part of parent education?

Phyllis R. Silverman, Ph.D., is a Scholar-in-Residence at Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center.

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