My husband lost his grandfather this week, the last of the eight grandparents we had between us. He was 88 years old. He survived Auschwitz alongside his brother, then emigrated to the USA where he married, became a father, a grandfather and eventually a great grandfather. He was a warm, bright and funny man who enjoyed lively conversations on a wide range of topics, from politics to business to the arts. He was a pianist. He was generous. He was infinitely patient – a trait he passed on to my husband. He loved children, especially my children. He would have been a pediatrician, had he not ended up in a concentration camp for most of his twenties.
We left our kids with my parents while we traveled to New York for the funeral. I knew they would have a lot of questions, but I also knew that my mother, a psychologist, would have better answers than I would.
We all hope that we don’t have to deal with loss and mourning, but it is a reality of life. It can be scary and confusing for children, but anticipating their questions and being prepared to answer them can help to quell anxiety and make a difficult situation a little bit easier.
Here are some of the tactics my mom recommends for talking to young children about death. I also found a very good article by Dr. Spock that follows along the same lines.
1. Keep it simple. While it can be tempting to bring faith in to the conversation, for very young children, concepts like heaven and angels are confusing. Euphemisms are also scary, so just explain that the person has died. Their body has stopped working.
2. Be reassuring. Young kids will be frightened at the thought that they or a parent will die. Tell children that when people get very old and very sick, they die. Children and parents are young, and will not be old for many, many years.
3. Be honest. It does scare children to see their parents upset, but it’s better to help them understand why you are emotional than to leave them to conjure up their own ideas. Say “I am sad because my grandpa died and I will miss him. I will feel better soon, but for right now, I’m feeling sad.”
4. Be patient. You’ll likely have to explain this over and over a few times. Be consistent in your answers. My three year old kept asking “how is great-grandpa?” for days afterwards, and then started telling anyone who had white hair that she would be sad after they died. It’s a process.