How to prepare a 4.5 year old for his grand father's passing?
July 19, 2010 1:56 PM   Subscribe

How to prepare a 4.5 year old for his grand father's passing?

My father has been dealing with cancer for the last 5 years. It's been a long road and I feel like we're getting to the end of it. For the most part he's been able to be quite active and in good spirits. But, as medications run their course and take their toll I don't think we're going to get another year.

My son was born shortly after he was diagnosed and was my parent's first grandchild. We live on the other side of the country but they come out once or twice a year for a visit and every year I get out to the farm with Max to spend 3 or 4 weeks driving tractors, chasing cows, and fishing in the pond. Max and my dad are extremely tight. My dad hasn't wanted me to discuss his sickness with Max at all and because he's been doing so well with his treatment I haven't felt the need.

But, at this point with Max getting older and starting to understand this stuff and with my Dad's disease progressing, I really don't want him to be blindsided by this. How can I start preparing my kid for this loss. I don't really want to resort to talk about heaven and stuff, my wife and I are pretty agnostic although my parent's are not. I guess we're spiritual but not religious in today's jargon. But, maybe that's the way to go. Maybe it's too difficult for little kids to grasp that kind of finality.

I'm sure some other mefi's have dealt with this in the past. Any advice or guidance is appreciated. Thank you.
posted by trbrts to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Here is a list of books that are meant to teach children about death, listed by the age range that they are appropriate for. The books don't merely introduce the idea of a loved one passing, but also help children come to terms with the range of emotions they will be feeling, and tools they can use to manage those feeling and remember their deceased relative.

I hope this provides some assistance, and am sorry for your circumstance; it's never easy losing somebody you love, even when the end comes after a long time.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:03 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs was one of the first picture books created that dealt with death in an honest and open way as a four year old boy deals with the death of his great grandmother, whom he is extremely close to. I know this book helped when my friend's mother died after a long (hidden from my godson) battle with cancer, it teaches that our love for the deceased survives in our memories.
posted by banannafish at 2:05 PM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was much younger (2 or 3) when my great grandmother died, but some of this still might apply. She suffered several strokes toward the end of her life, and I only have a few memories of her. She had her first stroke shortly after I was born and had to use a walker to get around. I would visit her at her house and she would watch me play.

She became bedridden after her second stroke and had to live in a nursing home. Every time I saw my great grandma after that was by being lifted up to her bedside. She was in a strange place and in bed, she couldn't talk very well, and I knew she was sick. I remember being told that she wanted to play with me and talk to me and hug me, but because her body didn't work very well, she couldn't do those things.

I vaguely remember going to her funeral (after her 3rd and fatal stroke), but only because there were lots of people there who wanted to hold me and coo over me, being the first baby of my generation. My dad took me home early so my mom could stay with the family and I wouldn't be there to get cranky and disruptive.

I think I had a pretty decent grasp of the fact that my great grandma was sick. I don't know if anyone ever explained to me that it meant she was going to die eventually, but I don't think it was a shock when she passed.
posted by phunniemee at 2:16 PM on July 19, 2010

I started to write a long answer about what we did with our 4-year old daughters a few months ago when my mother passed away, but instead I'll say this:

If you haven't already let them watch Lion King and Bambi, I'd start there. No, really. Talk to them about what happened to Simba's father and Bambi's mother, show them that while Simba and Bambi were very sad, life went on and eventually everyone was happy again, and try to use Mufasa's speech about the circle of life as a starting point about that topic.

My girls were OK with their grandma dying (they barely knew her) but started to get quite scared about someday dying themselves, telling me repeatedly that they didn't want to die, even when they were old. Strangely, what ended up working for us was explaining that everything dies in order to make room for new babies and new animals and new trees etc - everything passes so that there will be room for everyone. I think that helped create some order or purpose in their minds. YMMV, of course.

One thing - please don't feel like you have to hide your own grief when the time comes; it actually helps them understand and it can be very healing for both you. A few weeks after my mom passed I was sitting quietly with my head down, and my daughter came over and threw her arms around me and said 'I think you're sad because your mama died so I want to hug you.' It definitely helped!

Good luck. Defiinitely not easy.
posted by widdershins at 2:19 PM on July 19, 2010

First of all, I'm so sorry for your situation.

There's a book called The Fall of Freddie the Leaf that explains death to kids in fairly simple terms. Here's the full text. If you decide you want it, it should be in most bookstores and definitely on Amazon.

Your son will probably not process the death the way you think he will. Kids that age just don't quite get it yet. My son lost both his when he was 4, one when he was 6. There may be times when he seems totally tuned in to what's going on, and other times when it seems like he doesn't seem attuned to the situation at all. One example - my father-in-law died the day before my son started 1st grade. He was on a business trip at the time of his passing. The next day (the first day of school), at the bus stop, my son announces to all of the kids and parents gathered, "My grandpa died. My dad's leaving today to go get his body!". It wasn't happy or sad, just very matter-of-fact.

All kids are different, of course, just expect that he won't process it the way you do. Take care of yourselves.
posted by fresh-rn at 2:25 PM on July 19, 2010

In the same vein of being spiritual but not religious, I've been weaving the themes of death and renewal into a variety of conversations with my son, who's almost the same age as yours. We have a garden and talk about how things grow, sprout, bloom, fruit, wither and die, and that all of that is normal. When he plays "weapons" and someone gets "killed" I talk a little about what that would literally mean - not to scare him, just as information exchange. We find dead animals around the yard - mice, birds - and talk about what happened and will happen to them. Recently we went to the beach and talked about how everything that dies or gets left behind (like shells, even rocks) is used somehow again. I guess I think this kind of foundation may help when it comes to understanding some one dying.

Practically speaking, I would also make an effort to get your Dad and son together for an extended time in the near future. Take a lot of pictures of them together. Plan a few memorable events if possible for your Dad to do (I don't mean complicated, but memorable - like planting a tree or building something together). Don't try to make everything Really Important but gently, obliquely, talk about your time together as it's happening to "set" it. After your Dad has died, your son might want to make a book or picture collage to feel connected. If there's anything concrete and personal your Dad can give your son now or after he dies, that may help, too. If you know what your Dad's plans are for his body ("What will happen to Grandpa after he's dead?"), you could talk about that, too. I think kids find security and understanding in objects, in the physical.

Has your son started talking about death at all? Mine mentions it when we go visit my Grandmother, who is 96. He asks how old she is and then says, "She'll probably die pretty soon, right?" I've tried to be reverent but honest with those questions. "Nobody knows when they'll die, but yes, she'll probably die soon." My son seems focused recently on not having me or his little brother die. "I'm going to grow up fast so that we can be the same age and so that we can die at the same time!" If your son does talk about death, let him lead the conversation and bring a neutral point of view to your answers. For most kids who haven't experienced death of someone close, personal feelings are in competition with simple curiosity--ignorance--when it comes to death. Let him explore both if he needs to.
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 2:28 PM on July 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

Kids' ability to understand this stuff tends to progress with their ability to handle it, fortunately. When we dealt with relative's passing when our kids were younger, we just told them what happened (or what was going to happen) very simply. Tell them the truth (as you see it). If your father is up to it, it might be helpful for him to talk with him as well.

As with most issues, kids tend to ask questions beyond their ability to understand the answers; I'm not saying you just dismissively make up stuff, but I don't think you can prepare a script beforehand, you should keep the answers short, and it's okay to say "I don't know."

Perhaps one of the nonintuitive things I hear from people who lost loved ones when they were young is - anger. I would suggest trying to ensure, if nothing else, that Max understands that his grandfather didn't simply decide to leave everyone behind.

Another thing that I hear frequently is - encourage anyone who is grieving to let their emotions out. Cry. Complain. No, a 5 year old shouldn't ever be encouraged to throw a tantrum, but neither should they be encouraged to put on a happy face or not talk about their grandfather anymore. You don't seem the type to do that, but just saying.

Very sorry about your father, and what you're going through.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:40 PM on July 19, 2010

Much good advice here.

My son lost a grandmother and a great grandmother in the last 2 years, and has a 95 year old great grandmother, so she'll go at some point.

We talk about how (so far) all the dying has to do with being very old and very sick, though of course as he gets older he'll realize that's not true of everyone who dies.

We don't talk about heaven, except as "some people think X" conversations.

We do talk about how we're sad when people die--both my parents are gone and I say how I miss them sometimes. But how I have good memories of them to make me happy, and then maybe I tell him a good story of things we did together.

We reassure him that we're all fairly young and healthy and don't need to worry, we'll be around a long time.

It feels weird, because of course in the back of your mind you think of all the ways anyone could go at anytime. But statistically, most of us are likely to make it to old age, and he's four. There's only so much you can say.

If he's close to his grandpa, it's going to hurt, and he's going to grieve, and you have to be prepared to let him. There's no way around that.
posted by emjaybee at 3:14 PM on July 19, 2010

Take a lot of pictures of them together.

And video. Maybe interview them together? Or have one interview the other.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:16 PM on July 19, 2010

Something no one has brought up yet is how your son will see an deal with your own reaction to losing your dad. It may be that the scariest thing for your son is seeing your sadness. I don't know have any suggestions about this, but maybe someone else will.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:35 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can your dad talk to him about it? As a kid, and even as an adult, I really like(d) it when my grandparents talked to me like an adult and not a kid. Especially if they are tight, some kind of a hint from grandpa that he is getting toward the end of his journey might prepare him now as well as comfort him later.

I'm not sure this is an appropriate sentiment for a 5 year old, but I learned to accept death as the price we pay for life. Life is awesome, except for that whole dying thing. But it is absolutely unstoppable and we just need to enjoy everything we get.

(This movie has always been a grandson-grandpa tearjerker for me.)
posted by gjc at 3:35 PM on July 19, 2010

I'm so sorry for your circumstances. A friend once told me that she explained death to her preschool daughter as something being empty. They had found a dead cow in the woods and her little girl was full of questions, as a three-year-old would be. My friend didn't want to say that death was like sleep ("she'll never sleep again," she pointed out), so she said that the cow's body was empty of what made it alive. "It's like an egg with nothing inside it," she explained.

The analogy seemed to resonate with her daughter. A 4.5 year old will undoubtedly have more questions, especially since you're dealing with his beloved grandfather, not a cow of no acquaintance.

You sound like a great parent.
posted by corey flood at 3:49 PM on July 19, 2010

"Something no one has brought up yet is how your son will see an deal with your own reaction to losing your dad."

I lost my grandmother very suddenly when I was 6, and the grief was more excessive than it might otherwise have been because it was out of the blue. One of the things that was actually GOOD for me was seeing my parents grieve, because it helped me to understand that it was normal to be sad when someone you love dies, and that it was normal to cry, and that everybody was hurting as much as me. (Much more than me, really, but I was six. It was the biggest hurt I could imagine.) I remember stumbling across my dad crying like three weeks after the funeral, and that was good too because it helped me understand it was okay to keep being sad.

Of course all this grieving was done while providing me routine and structure and parenting -- eating and bedtime and hugs and question-answers about what death meant and lots of telling me that we were sad, and it was okay to be sad, and later on we wouldn't be so sad but we'd always miss her. And having so many grown-ups crying was a little -- not scary? but baffling, maybe. But the entire situation was baffling and a little scary; having it not HIDDEN from me but being able to see my family grieve and to grieve with them really helped me deal with it. This is anecdata, of course, but my cousins whose parents decided the funeral would be "too scary" and hid their grieving had a much harder time coping with the idea of grandma being dead, and were grieving a lot longer and more unevenly, if that makes sense; they knew it upset their mom and wasn't to be spoken of, so they didn't have their parents' help in walking through it.

(As I recall, I went to the funeral but not the wake, and the funeral was really important for me to understand what was going on, but YMMV. We were/are also religious, so going to religious ceremonies routinely was part of my life; it might have been weird or upsetting if I'd never done that before.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:08 PM on July 19, 2010

This old question has a lot of good advice you may find helpful.
posted by phunniemee at 4:48 PM on July 19, 2010

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