Explaining death to a child

Posted on: June 30, 2015


Last week my dear father-in-law passed away. It was something none of us saw coming.

He had always seemed the picture of health and then, out of nowhere, had heart trouble in mid May. After enduring quadruple bi-pass surgery and a week-long hospital stay, he went home to recover. After only a few days home, he began to have fluid building up in his lungs. At first, the doctors said it was Pneumonia, but later discovered it was actually Congestive Heart Failure. After yet another hospital stay, he again went home. Another four days later, he was back again but this time with a stroke. This was the event that eventually took his life.

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows how extremely difficult it is. And it’s especially difficult when it’s so sudden and unexpected.

As adults, we know that death is a natural part of life. We know that it’s important to find a way to grieve for our loved one but continue on with our life as well. But to a child, death is a foreign concept. Not something easily understood.

One of the hardest parts of losing my father-in-law was explaining to my four-year old son that his grandfather was gone. What words could I use that could possibly help him understand why he wouldn’t see his beloved grandpa anymore?

When my father-in-law first took ill, we told Giovanni that his grandpa was very sick and in the hospital. We’d pray for him together and Giovanni acknowledged it, but didn’t really seem to understand. When Tom died, we sat Giovanni down and told him grandpa had been so sick that he had died. Giovanni said ok, but I could tell he didn’t really realize what had happened. All he knew was that we were taking an unexpected trip to grandma and grandpa’s house.

As expected, Giovanni asked where grandpa was when we arrived. I sat him down and explained to him that his grandfather had been very sick and never got better. He had been so sick that he died. I told him that God decided it was time for grandpa to go to Heaven and that’s where he was. Giovanni asked me a couple of questions but seemed to understand a bit better this time.

At bedtime that night, my husband had the following conversation with Giovanni after speaking with my father on the phone:

Giovanni: Who was that?

Tim: It was your other grandpa. You only have one grandpa now.

Giovanni: Because Grandpa Stuhler died?

Tim: Yes.

Giovanni: But, that’s not fair. 

Tim: I know, buddy.

Giovanni: I’m going to miss grandpa. He was a lot of fun. 

My heart ached and tears streamed down my face when my husband told me of this conversation. My poor little guy had lost his buddy, a play mate, his goofy grandpa who acted silly with him.

Giovanni asked more questions over the next couple of days and my husband and I just continued to do our best to explain sickness and death to him.

We returned home last night and Giovanni hadn’t asked about grandpa again until bed time tonight. After I explained again how grandpa had been sick, Giovanni’s questions turned to himself. He asked if he would get sick like that and die. Honestly, I had wondered if this would happen and I had dreaded it. I don’t want my child to be scared he’s going to die too. Like any good mother, I told Giovanni he won’t die for a very very long time; that he had a lot of growing up to do still and that he’d be an old man when he died. As those words came out of my mouth, I prayed to God inside my head they would be true, that Giovanni would live a long and full life and not be taken from us early.

We opted not to have either of our children at the calling hours or funeral and I’m glad we stuck by that. But, while at the Wake a relative asked where Giovanni was and why he wasn’t there. They said he should be there to see his grandpa and have closure. I was surprised at this remark since Giovanni is so young. I feel it would have been too disturbing for him to see his grandfather in the coffin like that. That’s not how I want him to remember his grandfather. I don’t want him to remember the sick grandfather lying still in a box. I want him to remember the grandfather he laughed with and played with. I don’t at all regret my decision not to have either of my boys at the calling hours or funeral. It was hard enough for me, an adult, to see my father-in-law like that. I can only imagine what it would have done to my four-year old.

I feel happy knowing Giovanni has fond memories of his “fun” grandpa and that he was able to have him around for the first four and a half years of his life. It’s something his brother won’t have. It’s something some children never have.

Death is a natural part of life but there is nothing natural about having to explain it to such a young child.

Did my husband and I explain it well enough? I don’t know. Did we use the right words? I’m not sure. I just know we spoke to our son in love and answered his questions as best we could and reassured him that he still has lots of people around who love him. As Giovanni grows, he’ll understand more, but for now, it’s our job as his parents to help him through times like these.

In loving memory of Thomas A. Stuhler

with grandpa

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