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Explaining Death to Children

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Dr. Markham,
Thank you for your website. It really describes the parent I strive to be. My question is about death and explaining it to a toddler. I didn't see too much about this topic so far.

My daughter is 26 months. My father is dying of cancer and she is very close with him. I think the reason for that is while he was diagnosed a year ago during the hospital stay, they bonded instantly in a way that can't be described. It is like they needed each other during that tough time. She talks about him constantly. We live far away, but they stay in touch with web cameras. She talks about him more than anyone besides her parents.

I'm very concerned about what to do for the viewing and funeral when my dad does pass away. I think it will be traumatic for her. What should I do and how do I explain it to her? I want to make it easy for her, but I'm not sure how to explain it or explain why everyone is crying. I think she will be very concerned to see me cry.

Thank you, Lisa


Dear Lisa,
I am so sorry to hear about your father's illness. This is a difficult time for you as well as for your daughter.

Toddlers don't understand the finality of death. Therefore, you can't really expect your little one to understand that her grandfather won't be there on the webcam. The biggest danger is that she will feel he has abandoned her, so you will want to be sure that your explanations constantly reassure her that he loved her, and that love continues after someone dies, meaning that his love will always be there inside her heart.

I don't know what your personal beliefs are about what happens when someone dies, but it is possible that your daughter will remain very connected to her grandfather. There are many accounts of people who remember when a grandparent died during their childhoods, who say that they continued to speak with, and even see, their loved one. The younger the person is, the more likely they are to actually see the loved one after the death, because there is no cultural overlay to tell them it's not possible. Some people may say this is real. Some people may say it is a defense against the finality of death. I believe it does not matter, since it is a very adaptive response that has only healthy effects on the child.

But even if she does not see him, it will help her if you encourage her to speak with him inside her own head. If she can have a small object of his to keep and hold, it will facilitate this. Kids who are able to maintain a relationship with the person they've lost, even as they have permission to go on living fully and joyfully, make the healthiest adjustment to loss.

The fact that your daughter bonded with your dad during his hospital stay suggests that they have a special relationship. The more connection they can have prior to his death, the better it will be for both of them.

As for what to say to her? Grandpa is very sick. He is old and his body doesn't work so well anymore, so it was weaker and got a disease. That disease is slowly shutting his body down. He will get weaker but will still be able to hear us even when he is lying very still. Eventually, though, his body will shut down totally. When that happens we will bury his body in the ground.

You will be able to see his body and you will see that it doesn't really look much like him because his wonderful loving, laughing spirit is not there. We honor the body that is left, but it is more like a home where Grandfather lived, more like a shell he has cast off because he no longer needs it.

Why is there death? That is one of the great mysteries of life. But look around at nature. Everything alive is born, grows up, has a full life, gets old, and dies. It makes room for new life. Grandfather had a full life and one of the best parts was having his granddaughter to love.

When Grandfather's body goes, he will stay in our hearts. If we listen we will be able to feel him smiling at us and even speaking to us. One way to express our love is to tell stories about him and honor the life he led, so that is what we do at the funeral.

We are all very sad because we love him so much and when his body shuts down we will never be able to hug him again. That's why we cry so much. It helps us to cry, just like it helps you to cry when you fall down and get hurt. You cry and then you feel better. Because this is such a big hurt, we do a lot of crying. If you see me crying it is ok, it is because I am sad and miss my Dad. You can always give me a hug, but you don't need to take care of me. I will be ok. Grandpa would want us to keep living and enjoying life. We have to live extra full and good lives because we are living not just for ourselves now, but also for Grandfather, since he is in our hearts.

There are also wonderful books to read to your daughter, which will help her (and probably you) to continue to process this major transition in your lives. Here's a whole web page of books on explaining death to children.

I wish you all blessings and the consolation of love.
Dr. Laura

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