As I’ve mentioned, two of our close family members died this winter, and we had to figure out how to tell four-year-old Toby. Here are 10 things we learned…
1. Put your child in a cozy spot, such as sitting in your lap or lying next to you in their bed. I would often rub Toby’s back or hold his hands while we talked.
2. Be very direct and specific about the way the person died. Say something specific like, “Grandma’s heart was so sick. After a while, it stopped working and she died. It didn’t hurt.” If you say she went to sleep, your child might get scared of going to bed. And if you simply say that she was sick, without any more details, your child might get terrified of anyone getting a cold or the flu.
3. Talk about the death a bit at a time. I’ve read that kids process information in bite-sized chunks. So I would say a few simple sentences and then wait while Toby thought about it, or even went off to play. Then, invariably, he would come back to me with questions.
4. Don’t be offended if your child asks offbeat or blunt questions. Toby would ask unexpected questions, such as “Can girls die?” or “But Uncle Nick didn’t die, right?” or “When will you and Daddy die?” I tried to answer his questions matter-of-factly, and I told him that we were all healthy, and we plan to be around for a long, long, long time. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always say, “Let me think about that and get back to you,” and follow up later.
5. Be practical when explaining what death means. We aren’t religious, and I’m really curious about how people deal with these conversations within a religion. (Please share if you have an answer!) We chose instead to describe death in a practical way: “Uncle Scott died, which means he can’t talk, eat, walk or run anymore.” It felt a little strange to me to describe death that way, but Toby seemed to appreciate the literal description.
6. Explain that people are sad. When Alex’s brother died, I told Toby that Daddy was very sad and that we had to be very quiet and give him lots of hugs. Toby asked often about who was sad and would repeat things like, “Daddy is very sad because Uncle Scott died” or “Everyone was sad when Dilly died.” He seemed very interested in how the adults were reacting. We also talked about how we might help people feel better, like writing a card to Grandma or making cookies for Daddy.
7. Reassure the child that the death was not his fault. This seems like a no-brainer, but since young children think the world revolves around them, they might worry that they did something to cause it.
8. Understand that your child may want to talk about it over and over (and over). Toby got pretty fixated on the idea of death, and he’d bring it up once or twice a day (and still brings it up every few days). He would ask me the same questions over and over. He would repeat facts simply to have me confirm them. He told me that his beloved imaginary friend Dun Dun died. I tried to stay very open and accepting of all his questions so he could take his time and work through it. Little kids can’t grasp the permanence of death, so it takes a while to wrap their minds around everything.
9. Realize that your child might show emotion in different ways. I read that young children can react to death by regressing in toilet training, reverting to baby talk or getting nervous about going to school. For Toby, we found that he suddenly developed major separation anxiety. He still doesn’t want me to leave for work, he asks us every evening if we’re staying home or going to dinner, and he comes into our bed at night. We are trying to stick to a very predictable schedule so he feels safe and secure — and knows that we aren’t going anywhere.
10. Tell happy stories about the person who died. Toby often asks for stories and I tell him things like, “Remember Uncle Scott played Jingle Bells on his guitar for you last Christmas?” or “Scott loved Lisa very much and he wore a fancy suit to their wedding.” We also look through old photos together.
One thing I’ve noticed is that children can be a huge pick-me-up during sad times. One morning this winter, I was walking Toby to school and ran into an acquaintance who casually asked me how I was. I couldn’t help bursting into tears and she gave me a hug. As I was trying to pull myself together, Toby looked up and said, “Mama, why you have a tear ON YOUR NOSE??” It made me laugh out loud. You can’t always stay too deep in it when you have a little one who wants to play, laugh and see the world in such a sweet way.
Anyway, I hope this is helpful for anyone navigating a similar situation, and I would love to hear your advice and stories, too. If you’re religious, do you explain death in a different way? xoxo