Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Teaching Kids About Death

My father died suddenly two weeks ago. To my twins, he was Grandpa Butch, a beloved fixture in their lives. They shared a birthday with him, snuggled eagerly on his lap, learned the alphabet with him, and squealed with delight when he pushed them on a swing or pulled them in their little red wagon.

And so now, even as I am dealing with the shock and sorrow of unexpectedly losing my dad, I'm having to help my three-year-old kids understand something I can barely comprehend.

I'll be honest: Right now, I mainly want to be away from my kids. I pretty much want to curl up in a corner and cry; I'd love to be able to take long walks and long naps, sort through old photos, sniffle at will. Friends and family have helped give me some modest stretches of time to myself since my dad died, and I'm working on lining up a new babysitter. But they're clearly feeling needier than usual, and the job falls substantially on me to help them work through their own bafflement and grief.

My husband and I decided, from the start, to be direct. I sat the two of them down the morning after that awful middle-of-the-night news and told them that something very sad had happened, Grandpa Butch had died and we wouldn't ever be able to see him again.

They asked why, of course. They're too young to understand something like "massive heart attack," and I didn't really want to tell them that he died because had been sick, out of concern that they'd be afraid that every ordinary little illness would lead to death. So I said that he was old, and that when people were very old, they sometimes died. This has been my only evasive half-truth of the whole affair, and I don't feel great about it --but I was, after all, in shock.

The kids didn't talk about it much that awful first day, when we spent about 12 hours on the road, scrambling to get to my mother's house as quickly as we could. But with each passing day, they've wanted to talk about it more and more. My daughter asks questions, many times throughout the day: "Did Grandpa Butch die?" "Why did he die?" "Mommy, are you crying because Grandpa Butch died?" "Why won't we see him again?" I try to answer as plainly and honestly as I can, and talk a lot about how our sorrow grows out of love, and how Grandpa Butch lives on in our hearts and memories.

My son is a little more laconic; he'll interject, say, when my daughter is rattling off the names of all the people we ate a meal with, "But not Grandpa Butch -- he died." He's clearly been listening carefully, though, both to Nini's questions and my answers.

They both have been doing a lot of play-acting, like making imaginary phone calls to my father, which my instinct tells me is a healthy thing for them to be doing. They've long since liked to pretend that they're Grandpa Butch and Grandma Jean; it was uniquely wrenching to watch them do so last week in front of my grieving mother. At one point, they were sitting side-by-side in a chair, and Desmond declared, "Grandpa Butch is going to kiss Grandma Jean," and then leaned over and kissed his sister. My mom and I, of course, burst into tears.

When the health of their other grandfather took a turn for the worse this week, a wise friend suggested that I encourage them to make a drawing and dictate a get-well message for him. They did, and no sooner had we sealed the envelope to send to Grandpa Mel than Desmond announced he wanted to do another drawing and mail it to Grandpa Butch.

I waited until they'd finished their creation, and asked them if they had any message they wanted me to write down for Grandpa Butch. "I love you, Grandpa Butch," said Desmond. I sealed the envelope, and then I got down to their eye level, and explained that we couldn't really put it in the mail. They looked confused and sad. Thinking quickly, I suggested that we make a special box for any messages they might want to send to Grandpa Butch. They loved the idea, and eagerly decorated an empty shoebox I found in the closet, carefully putting their letter inside.

Today, Nini looked at the box quizzically and asked me, "But how are we going to get the box to Grandpa Butch?" I can tell we're going to be talking about it all for a very long time.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for the loss of your father.

Anonymous said...

thank you for your post this is very helpful

Anonymous said...

thanks for the article, my father died 14 years ago my kid 6 is asking about him and i had no idea how to deal with the question.

vegetable garden cook said...

I know it has been a few years, but I just stumbled onto your blog and wanted to say I'm sorry about your father's death. Two years ago, I lost a baby and had to talk to my then two year old a lot about it. Two years later, he still remembers his emotions about it and I'm glad I was upfront with him.