How do I explain death to a 5 year old?
January 2, 2014 10:59 PM   Subscribe

My father died a few hours back in India. I am trying to fly there tomorrow afternoon (after I get back to Dallas in the morning to pick up passport etc.). I have been away a lot this past year on work (4 days a week on most week days; also been away the past 7 days on a large, crazy program going live on 4 days time). And now I am taking off to India for ... not sure how long (probably 2-3 weeks). My son and I are very close. He is fond of his grandfather. We came back from a 2 week trip back home 2 months back. So he has fairly recent memories. I would like to be truthful to him and explain why I am going away for a substantial time. But I am slightly worried about him starting to brood about me when I am away if I do (he is only 5). What is a good way to approach this? Is it wiser to lie? Thank you.
posted by justlooking to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would tell him because he will overhear things and it is better for you to help him make sense of it. On the other hand, my personal inclination is to lie (slightly) and promise him that you will not die until you are very old - so old that he will be all grown up have children of his own. (He might not realize the age difference between you and his grandfather, that's why I would emphasize just like grandfather lived a very, very long time so that his little boy (you) grew up, got married and had your child (your son), you plan to be there that long for him.
posted by metahawk at 11:11 PM on January 2, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think I'm pretty much with Metahawk on the how/what to tell him - the same as you would if it was anyone that was a regular part of his life. If possible, for additional reassurance, if there's a way to call or Skype or something while you're gone, do it.

That he is used to you being gone for work may help him understand you'll be back - or you may experience the reverse, with him having increased concern about your work travel. Consider in your interactions about *this* trip with how they might affect his future response to those work trips. That's much of why I'd advise to lay out plans for regular - every day or two if possible - contact while you are gone this time.
posted by stormyteal at 11:22 PM on January 2, 2014

First, I'm very sorry for your loss.
Second, don't lie. But two weeks is hard for a five year old to really comprehend. Say..." I'm going away for 21 sleeps and while I'm away I want you to draw me a picture every day to put under my pillow in my room. I will sleep better in India with that under my pillow here. It's your magic.

Cross off every sleep while I'm away so I don't get silly and come home on the wrong day.
What things do you remember about India that I can bring back for you? I will email you a photo of me at grandpa's house and lots of monkeys. Phoning you will be difficult but I will look up at all the stars every night and send you my love. If you feel like you miss me, can you go and blow some kisses to the stars while I'm away? "

The trick is to give him some control and a countdown. It hurts like hell, but my experience is that phoning home while you're away actually makes it harder for the kids. Unless an adult with your son can use it as a bed time bribe. I reckon when the away parent interrupts the rhythm of the day back home...that's when the kids get upset.

Then you just bring back lots of photos and presents and hug your little one to bits. Don't be too emotional as you leave him, it will make him frightened. Of course, tell him how sad you are about your dad, but let him know you're going to do this for grandpa, it's your last job for him.
posted by taff at 11:29 PM on January 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

Another alternative...whenever I've had a sad and sorry child...I've given them my pillow or their favourite sweater of mine and said, "sleep with this till I get back". That's always helped a LOT.
posted by taff at 11:33 PM on January 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

Definitely be truthful with him. 5 year olds are still very literal in their thinking about the world so the more straightforward you are with him the easier it will be for him to understand. I like the suggestion in this link which is to say something like "his body wasn't working any more and the doctors couldn't fix him". It means you can also reassure him "daddy's body is working just fine, it's much newer than Grandad's was".

Explain to him why you are going - to say goodbye to him, to help other relatives feel better etc. It's better to be concrete about time so he has a secure idea of when to expect you back, rather than "Daddy has to go away for a while." I like the idea of giving him something of yours to sleep with while you're gone.

It's a sad but natural part of life and showing him that it can be talked about and it's ok to express emotions about it are actually going to be positive experiences for him in the long run. And take care of yourself, too. I'm very sorry for your loss.
posted by billiebee at 2:25 AM on January 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

Lying to your kids is generally a bad idea.

Doesn't mean you have to tell him everything though.
posted by valkyryn at 2:36 AM on January 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was in a similar situation (I have a 5 year old, my dad died thousands of miles away in a different country, my son had met my dad several times and liked him). I didn't get to explain the trip before I left, because I left at about 3 hours notice, but since then I have explained that 'Grandpa died' a number of times, and I tell him I'm sad. I found that rather than being hugely upset, he does not understand what death or grieving are from an adult perspective (which is fair enough). He says that he is sorry and that he liked Grandpa. Anyway not much point lying to kids about stuff like that, not least because their reaction to death is not necessarily my reaction to death, if that makes sense. Just tell him what you have to do. I think he'll like being taken into your confidence.
posted by carter at 4:49 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might want to look at what the Sesame Street people did after Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) died.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:43 AM on January 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

posted by Dansaman at 5:45 AM on January 3, 2014

Thank you.
I'll try to do the best that I can based on your advise.
posted by justlooking at 6:41 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

We used Oogway's death scene in Kung Fu Panda to discuss the death of their grandparents with our kids.

It's non-traumatic and peaceful. Our kids were able to grasp that they "went away" and it wasn't painful for them.
posted by fellion at 8:10 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you bring him with you?
posted by jasper411 at 10:11 AM on January 3, 2014

I had to ask for resources for my son since we will need to explain death to him very soon as well.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf


When Dinosaurs Die

were highly recommend by his school's adjustment counselor.
posted by zizzle at 11:30 AM on January 3, 2014

Please accept my condolence on the passing of your father. First of all, I second the notions above, about taking your son with you. Lots of ground gets covered that way.

Death is hard to explain. Kids are more able to take it in than we'd like to believe. My son was five years old when one of our dogs died. I buried the dog before my son got home from school, and, when he got home, I showed him Bowser's grave. I was stumped for an approach, so I just came right out an told him that Bowser had died. I asked my son if he knew what that meant, and he said, "Yeah, broke, can't fix him."

Funerals are for the living. So are wakes. I hope this process goes smoothly for you, and you are able to be among loved ones during this time.

Best wishes.
posted by mule98J at 4:10 PM on January 3, 2014

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