Talking To Young Children About Death and Dying

Death is a naughty little trickster.  He comes unexpectedly, and one never knows how long he will stay.  He came to visit my family this month, and it’s been tough for everyone.  We’ve been lucky so far in that death hasn’t knocked at our door very frequently, but last week we lost our grandpa fairly unexpectedly after a difficult battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s. I was nervous to speak to my oldest child about death and dying, but she showed her resilience, and I’ll share our story with you in the hopes that you can learn from us.

Holding grandpa's hand as he passed away

Holding grandpa’s hand as he passed away in Beatrice, Nebraska

When we found out grandpa was dying I left the girls to drive to the hospice bed and say goodbye to him, and it was hard on the kids.  I was only gone 24 hours, but when I returned Big Sister asked how my grandpa was doing.  I evaded the question since we hadn’t really talked about death or dying with her yet.  Since my girls are young, neither had any recollection of my grandpa, but they would attend his memorial service and burial later in the week.  I knew that Little Sister would have no idea what was going on, but Big Sister is a mature 3 and a half, and she is also extremely sensitive to other people’s emotions.  She will often internalize strong emotions and believe that they are her fault, and I wanted to avoid any trauma to her during the service.

 

We had a long drive to southeast Nebraska for the funeral, and I explained to her that we were going there in order to say goodbye to my grandpa.  About an hour before we arrived, she asked me “Mami, where is grandpa going?”  I decided to use the teachable moment to explain.  I should note here that we are Catholic, and pray each night to “Father God,” so she has a concept of talking to someone that we can’t see.  I told her, “Grandpa went to be with Father God in Heaven.”  

Sunset at 7:00 p.m. Sunday, April 24, 2016 in Lincoln, Nebraska. May you rest in peace forever, grandpa Lloyd

Sunset at 7:00 p.m. Sunday, April 24, 2016 in Lincoln, Nebraska. May you rest in peace forever, grandpa Lloyd

Kids are so resilient… she then asked where Heaven was, what Father God looks like, etc.  the questions continued for several days before and after the funeral.  My grandpa was cremated, so we didn’t have to address the open casket.  I did notice that on the day of the funeral, she kept asking where her grandpa was.  I then realized that she thought that her grandpa was going to be with Father God on Friday, and come back Saturday.  Once she realized that my dad was not going anywhere, she was happy.

 

I realize that we are extremely blessed in that we have been able to discuss death and dying, this first time around, in a fairly removed way.  My children didn’t lose someone that they knew or were close to, and they won’t feel the daily loss, grief or trauma of losing a loved one in the way many people do.  Still, I am relieved that our initial conversation about death and dying was well-received and that it will serve as a conversation point for if and when death visits our family again.  
For children’s book resources about death and dying, visit this post from my friend Leanna at www.alldonemonkey.com

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talking to children about death and dying

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