My father is dying. How to prepare our son?
March 11, 2021 11:15 AM   Subscribe

My father is dying. How to prepare our son? Details below the fold.

My father has terminal prostate cancer. Luckily he is not in pain. My son is 5 years old. He knows that grandpa is sick, this is why he cannot play with him thw way he played a year ago.

One of our neighbours also had cancer and died last year. My son is vaguely aware that he died and even talked about this topic with the neighbour's kids.

We tried to bring up our son to be confident, strong and independent, so in general we don't tell him white lies, and try to explain everything to him. But we also would like to shelter him from unnecessary pain. This two separate objectives are apparently in conflict when we discuss with my wife whether to bring him to the -- hopefully far in the future -- funeral. Would he be afraid? Or would he be angry later because we didn't bring him to this important life event?

Dear Mefites. If you were in a similar situation, please give me advice. How to talk with your child about the impeding death of a family member? Should we bring him to the funeral? Is there anything we should focus on in this situation?
posted by kmt to Human Relations (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you are losing your father and your son is losing a grandfather.

You absolutely should bring him to the funeral, that is the best current child development advice and has been for at least a few decades. At 5, it is developmentally appropriate to include a child in the rituals we all share. Sufficient preparation can help build a bridge to that experience; I am not current on the best books on this topic for children anymore but Ask is filled with very helpful librarians. Assuming you read to your child you can add a new book to your rotation.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:38 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]

My kids were three and four when my father-in-law died unexpectedly. We read and reread the book When Dinosaurs Die with them, and a handful of other books recommended by our children's librarian. We didn't have a full-on funeral but we did have a memorial service, and we had my kids come to the beginning of it, and then they left with my parents when they started to get wiggly. This worked well for us - they got to see a room full of people who would also miss their grandpa and hear some stories about how much he talked about them all the time, but also they didn't have to stay and sit still and be quiet indefinitely, and they were with other grown-ups they were comfortable with to process and talk about it. Neither kid was afraid; one kid asked if she could see his ashes so we showed them to her later without people around.

I am sorry for your impending loss.
posted by SeedStitch at 11:57 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]

I really like phrasing along the lines of, “every person eventually gets very old, or very very sick, or hurt so bad it can’t be fixed, and their body doesn’t work anymore so they die.” There’s so much euphemistic language around death that it can be really confusing to kids. They deserve to know that when someone is dead, their body has stopped working and we can’t be with them anymore the way we used to, and it can be really sad, and that’s normal, and we can also remember the things we love about them. Presenting it in this way—and I would start talking about death now/soon rather than waiting til you’re in your own grief—is kind to the child and also helps protect you against having to explain over and over that grandpa is dead, not sleeping, not on vacation in heaven, not going to come back, etc.

When you find a good, age-appropriate book about death for little kids, think about how you might gently prompt some imaginative play about dying and funerals. Don’t force it, obviously, but if you read the story and kiddo has questions, one way to find answers is to play pretend.
posted by theotherdurassister at 12:02 PM on March 11 [18 favorites]

I agree that you will likely get some great book and maybe media recs here about getting into what will be a years-long conversation about death, loss, and grief. Kids who lose important relatives young grieve and re-grieve that loss as they get older and recontextualize it at various developmental stages, and you can't prevent that. You can just teach tools for managing it.

I mostly just came to leave the reminder that funerals are for the living. The death is a separate occasion, you would be taking him to a celebration of the life of someone important in his family - even if it is a somewhat somber one, funerals are rarely scary or even dramatic, unless the circumstances are quite bad. These days (assuming circumstances allow), funerals are the closest thing some families have to family reunions, and there's going to be people there who are attending in part to see your son and make a connection.

So for his purposes, I would be careful about drawing a straight line between "the worst possible thing has happened" and the funeral/memorial events. Death causes funerals but not vice versa, funerals can be emotionally intense for grownups because of grownup stuff, but they generally aren't going to be an experience of devastating grief for little kids because they aren't processing it like adults.

Funerals can be overstimulating and a little intimidating possibly, as it can be especially novel if he doesn't have any experience of "congregation" that is primarily adults and mostly strangers, so you could prepare for that in the way you would have developmentally-appropriate conversations in advance of anything really new, but I still would not tie that so tightly to an adult's feelings about the loss of a parent that your son feels like he's being taken to a bad scary event.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:14 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]

I am really sorry for your impending loss as well.

In my family the kids come to the (pre-Covid) funerals, but they are allowed to be kids - if it's at a funeral home, usually a couple of teens are pressed into service to hang out in the hall/grounds with some of them, there's usually a colouring area set up for the kids to draw their feelings (which are bundled up with the guest book), and it's up to the kids if they approach the casket or not. On my husband's side it's a big family and the funerals are big and although of course it's solemn and people are has a family feel, if you know what I mean? Everyone's allowed in.

In my own view, leaving your child out of the rituals of death is not at all the same as sparing them pain - the pain is at the loss. It's sparing yourself having to manage the child's feelings during the rituals around death and if that speaks to you, I think it would also be okay to do that and then have a smaller event for your son. But I wouldn't leave it out as if the ritual is the problem.

Regardless I think readying yourself for your child's questions might be a good idea. We have a copy of The Death Book but we are a blunter family than most. I know your library would help.

For talking to your child in advance, this might, depending on your father, be something your father might want input about too. Again for me, I generally err on the side of too much information. We're going through this a bit right now as my son's teacher has been diagnosed with a Stage 4 cancer and has been open with the kids and with us about it. What we told our son is that everyone dies (as he already knew), most of us when we're very old. But his teacher has a disease that may mean she dies sooner, and that it's nice to share the present time with her. And that it's okay to be sad or scared, but also okay to laugh and even not do his homework (although he really should do his homework.)

I know that's a different situation but I hope there's something in there that will help you as you work through this.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:17 PM on March 11 [8 favorites]

I'm so sorry for your family that you are anticipating the death of a loved member, and concerned about being honest with your son while not traumatizing him. I think your best guide is to think about what is age-appropriate, which it sounds like you are doing. My father had 3 kindergarten and younger grandchildren when he had an anticipated death from cancer, and while they visited him as he became sicker and weaker, my daughter chose not to take them to the funeral, largely because my father wanted an open-casket funeral.

Attending an open-casket funeral myself of a relative at the age of about 10 was absolutely terrifying and traumatizing to me, causing me nightmares and the dread of falling asleep for months. My parents really regretted taking me but you can't unsee what you've seen, unfortunately.

If your son does attend, the coffin is typically open for a viewing and then closed for the service. I'd suggest making sure your son attends only after the coffin is closed. Be prepared for lots of questions about grandpa being in a box, and if he is buried that will also require some prepped answers.

At this point, two years after my dad's death, I took the kids to his (lovely, lovely) graveyard, and they have a simple understanding of death, which I have tried to euphamize as "memories of people we love who aren't here anymore" when the concrete answers could be more upsetting.
posted by citygirl at 12:18 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]

My father was cremated. My nieces, about 3 and 5 years old, were very upset that "Grandpa was put in the wall," and I wish we had prepared them for that.

I have a lovely memory of the 3-year-old sitting on Mom's lap during the wake.
posted by MichelleinMD at 12:38 PM on March 11

I attended my grandfather's open-casket funeral when I was about five, and I was not at all traumatized by seeing his body (not to negate citygirl's experience - just to say kids are different).
posted by FencingGal at 12:42 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]

Two of my grandparents died of terminal illnesses when I was around your son's age. What I remember is knowing that they were sick, and that they died, which meant I wouldn't see them again. I had no understanding of the depth of my parents' grief at the time. I don't remember if I went to their funerals or not. I feel like maybe I didn't, and that was okay.

Your son might be different, but this was my own experience as a young child who lost two grandparents.
posted by wondermouse at 12:45 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

I was around a lot of elderly people growing up, so consequently went to a lot of funerals. The first I remember was my grandfather’s when I was 2 1/2. I don’t think I knew what was going on then.

When I was about 5, my great-grandmother died, and I remember my mother having me and my sisters touch her hand in the casket so we wouldn’t be afraid. She explained something along the lines of “this is just an empty shell, and she’s not in it anymore.” I think this was something I could understand at that age, and I wasn’t afraid.

A couple years later, my great aunt died in her sleep while living with us. At some point in the morning my mom told us she had died, and we drew pictures for her and laid them on her body while waiting for the funeral home to pick her up. Kids like rituals and feeling like they are participating. (She was cremated and placed in a wall vault, and like MichelleinMD’s nieces, that was the thing that stuck with me as a kid. I think it was the idea that the whole wall was was full of bodies and ashes all stacked up. Not sure what to say about that to a kid, it is kind of weird.)

All this to say, kids are not intrinsically scared of death and dead bodies. It is all about how YOU act and explain it to them. When kids are sheltered and insulted from these realities is when fear develops. You should take him to the funeral, and show and tell him there is nothing to be afraid of. I think I have a much better, well-adjusted attitude to death now because of these early experiences, compared to many other adults I know.
posted by catatethebird at 1:38 PM on March 11 [6 favorites]

My father died when I was two years older than your son. That was a long time ago, but I can remember that I appreciated very much that the family had not tried to hide the truth from me about how bad the prognosis was. The only way to do that would have been to send me to live somewhere else; it was evident that he was severely ill and not getting that much better. When he died, I had been able to prepare myself for that reality, as much as one can.

So. Two years is a lot in early childhood development, and I don't know how much information your son can handle. But I support giving him the facts as much as he can understand them.
posted by thelonius at 2:27 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]

There's a Little Golden Book called Grandpa Bunny that helped when I was in a similar situation with my kiddo.
posted by sapere aude at 3:17 PM on March 11

A friend's daughter was really afraid her parents would die after a friend and a grandparent died. She didn't want to share her fear because she knew her parents were grieving. Ask kids how they're doing, a week, month, year later.
posted by theora55 at 3:56 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]

This link and this one may be of use to you.
posted by metabaroque at 4:43 PM on March 11

I'm very sorry you and your family are going through this. My daughter was nearly five when we lost two of her grandparents last September, both to cancer. There were some books that were helpful (shared below), and our communication approach was to be very clear, simple and matter-of-fact to ensure she could understand (as much as she could) what was happening and that it wasn't her fault. I made an emphasis to talk about the permanence of death (i.e., grandpa/grandma died, which means their bodies don't work anymore -- and his/her body won't start working again). I didn't want there to be any confusion between "sleeping" and "dying." We had a cat that died a year prior which helped explain the concept of death, but we also talked a lot about how plants and insects die.

One thing that concerned me a bit was that my daughter didn't often want to talk about the deaths -- she would have periods of extreme sadness (typically before bed) and would purposefully create a disconnect between her feelings and her grandparents (for example, she would say she was sad about her cat dying or that she had cereal for breakfast). The counsellor I was seeing told me it's very typical for kids at that age and the best thing you can do, after the dust has settles, to be open to talking to them when they want to talk but not press them about their feelings on a regular/every day basis (as I was doing).

I encourage you to find ways to find ways to memorialize your father for your child: talk about him often and keep pictures nearby. If you have a garden, plant a special tree or get a rock with his name. Something symbolic they can look at. I would definitely encourage you to bring your child to your father's memorial (as long as it's a closed casket and you don't feel it would be damaging). Your child is at the age where I would ask their input, too. They might surprise you with strong feelings one way or another.

Anyway, onto the books:
The Invisible String
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
The Dead Bird
The Memory Tree
posted by Cat Face at 8:50 PM on March 11

My kiddo was about that age when she lost a great grandparent. It was made more complicated by the fact that we weren't religious. She was a sharp and thoughtful kid and did struggle with the idea of death and fears of dying for a while. There may be no way around that.

One thing that did comfort her was talking about how dead bodies become part of the earth again, and all the molecules become trees and oceans and animals again and again. That's how life continues. if nobody died and babies kept being born, soon there'd be no room. And we also just let her be sad and need to be near us.

Not every kid takes it that hard...I didn't as a kid. In fact, my father died before she was born and *she* gets teary when I talk (very calmly) about him. That's who she is.

Be open to your child reacting in their own unique way, and hug them a lot. This is hard and you are hurting too. Let others not so close to the loss offer their help in hanging out with him and answering questions.

As for preparing, be honest. Let them know your father is dying at some point when the time is close and let them say goodbye. Use your best judgement about the funeral and make sure there's plenty of normal kid and things to do too.
posted by emjaybee at 12:30 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi All. Apologies for not coming back earlier, these days are rather tiring. Thank you for all your thoughtful suggestions. We are still debating with my wife, but your advice gave us a lot of new perspectives. We just hope we can make the best decision when the time comes. Luckily it seems that we have more time: my father rapid decline stopped, and now his state is not worsening. Every day is a gift. I won't pick a best answer because all of you helped but I'll mark resolved. Thanks for your kind help!
posted by kmt at 6:41 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]

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