Helping explain death of a parent to a 3 year old - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 8 Old 01-25-2012, 09:32 AM - Thread Starter
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My nephew is three and his daddy passed away 7 months ago.  He misses him terribly. How do I explain death?  I've told him that he is in heaven, and he wants to get in a rocket ship and see him.  His daddy had an accident so it was one day he was in his life and the next day he wasn't.  He was such a fantastic dad.  Do I say he "died"...?  I have never used those words with him...I just tell him he is with the angels.  Help??

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#2 of 8 Old 01-25-2012, 10:19 AM
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How very sorry for your terrible loss...


About your question, I would advice that, unless you are the main caretaker of the child, you would first take up this matter with the mother or other close relatives who've been around the child most and find out how they address this to the child. If they have always told him that his father has died, in these or other pretty direct wording, you could go along with that and try and explain/add that it means someone is not (never) around  in person, anymore, like he sees/holds/talks to you now; and you could say that a person who died, although not being present anymore, will always keeps on living in the thoughts of the people who love(d) him, and that people often do think about him, miss him, just like he does, and that people are often sad that the person is not alive anymore, but that they also are very happy and grateful for all the time they had spent with that person before, etc. Maybe bring up nice memories together with the child so he could always continue remembering his dad that way (3y is still so young to be able to remember a beloved one in a later age, I believe, so I think it is good to talk a lot about the father when needed and not to close the subject because it feels 'uncomfortable'). If his caretakers are religious and use religious explanations you could also go with that, but if you would do so and they are not, I think it could cause more confusion for the child and caretakers. I think the main thing is consistency in how people approach this with the child, over the whole line.

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#3 of 8 Old 01-25-2012, 01:41 PM - Thread Starter
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Thank you for posting.  It was quite helpful.  I am not the main caretaker his mother is but I do have him a lot and we were both discussing how we answer all of his questions.  My husband is a fantastic uncle to him and tries so desparately to fill the void.  We have all his pictures up and always remind him of daddy.  It is just so hard when you lay down with him to take a nap or at bedtime and he says when can I see my daddy?  Is he gonna come home tomorrow?  Is he gonna pick me up from school?  Everything is just so fresh for us all.  We have never said to him "he died"...his mom was thinking of saying that, but I wan't sure if it was the best approach.  I will support anything that is best for him!


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#4 of 8 Old 01-25-2012, 02:49 PM
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I'm so sorry for your loss.


I am no expert, so I hope others will chime in, but I imagine that it's probably confusing for your nephew to hear that daddy is in heaven and never to hear that he's died. When my dd was three, her thinking was very concrete, so I'm sure she would have just thought "heaven" was a place and not understood why someone would have have left her to go there, why he wouldn't come back, and why she wouldn't visit. When my dd was not quite three, our dog died (very different and in no way do I mean to conflate the two) but we were as explicit with her as we could be, e.g., the dog died and that means that her body was very sick and stopped working, she can't come back, etc. Death is a very hard thing for a child--or an adult--to grapple with, but I do think that children are best served by honest answers.


I wonder if the best thing might be for you all to find a grief counselor or psychologist with whom you--and your nephew--could talk through some of these issues. A specialist might also help with giving you appropriate language to talk about it. 

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#5 of 8 Old 01-26-2012, 10:10 AM
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I am sorry for your family's loss.


Your nephew needs to have his questions answered honestly and now.  7 months is way too long to have allowed him to wonder and not have any answers, other than vague religious overtones which he cannot honestly understand.


Personally, I don't think any specialists or psychologist need enter the picture.  Why introduce strangers when all he needs is the love of his concerned family??  Death doesn't need to be so overanalyzed, imo.  It is a part of life and children can understand it.


The child needs to hear the truth.  But, he needs to hear it from his MOM.


To a young child, heaven is nothing more than a word describing a place.  The whole concept of heaven and angels and a diety is an abstract they cannot really understand.  They do so because they are told to.  Describe your view of heaven (assuming it is a nice one) and he wonders why he can't go visit Daddy and play there (sounds like a great place).  Why hasn't Daddy asked him to visit (has he done something to make Daddy leave?)?


It's good that you haven't hidden the idea of Daddy away.  That you talk about him.  But, you are doing a great disservice to the child by ignoring the real truth:  Daddy isn't coming back.  Ever.  But, he will always be in everyone's hearts and heads and is real as long as he is thought about. 


He needs to be taken to the cemetery (if the father was interred) so he can see the grave/niche/whatever.  A child needs to know where the physical remains are, it is easier for them to cope with rather than the whole metaphysical-invisible-wings-trumpets-golden-light idea (that can be scary for a lot of kids).  He could do drawings for Daddy and put them on the grave (done on rice paper, they will bio-degrade quickly and you can tell him that his drawings are going into the sky to become future rainbows!).  Allow him to help plant spring and fall bulbs at Daddy's grave and bring the first buttercups of the year.   


He needs to know he can talk to Daddy, whenever and wherever he wants.  Maybe he could have a bedtime routine where he tells Daddy about his day. 


Or, if he doesn't want to talk to him, that needs to be respected, as well. 


Children can handle things way better than adults think they can. 


When my wonderful mil died of cancer, on Christmas night, I had to tell ds (age 4) the next day.  Dh was over with fil and dealing with him.  She had been in the local hospital just a few days.  We flew her here from Florida (we're in Washington state) via air ambulance, so she could see ds one more time.  He saw her two days earlier, before she slipped into a coma.


I sat him down, amongst his Christmas loot, and reminded him about how Nanny was very sick with a grown-up illness and in the hospital.  I said, that the doctors had been working very hard to help her with this grown-up illness, but it was more than they could do and that she couldn't live with it anymore and died overnight. 


Quick and to the point.


Ds took it in and asked where she was.  I explained she died at the hospital and that she was now at the place where they take care of dead people until they are buried or cremated.


He asked if he would ever see her again.


I said no, she would be in the cemetery.


He said, it was okay, because she would always be in his head.


He was allowed to help choose the material for her headstone (he asked if he could) and didn't have to go to her funeral (he didn't want to, he wanted to stay home and play with his new Christmas stuff).  This was fine with us. 


In fact, a few years ago, he asked if he could choose the urn my Mom's ashes will be put into when she dies.  She is his favorite grandparent (favorite relative, actually) and it is important to him to be involved and have something to do, even in advance, of the time. 

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#6 of 8 Old 01-26-2012, 12:16 PM
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Telling a child about the death of a beloved one, is a very hard thing indeed... But I think it needs to be done and the child needs to be able to understand. This won't mean that a child (this young especially) will easily understand or accept the death, he may continue asking about his father and why he won't come home etc. the same questions will keep on coming, but yet again I believe being clear, and consistent about it all, how hard it may be for all of you, but especially in passing on this important message to such a small child, is the best thing you can do for him to learn to understand over time.


I'm sure there are books about grieving and more specifically in regard to children that may be useful to your family; there also exist picture books about grieving, however I do not know of any titles. You may search the internet for gentle-books-children-dealing-grief or likewise wording, and I also found this site among others:


I wish you and everyone around you all the strenth you need; it must be so very hard to have to be 'strong' for your beloved ones grieving and at the same time grieving yourself too...





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#7 of 8 Old 01-27-2012, 05:50 AM
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I completely understand the desire to shield a child from the hard thruth that his father is never coming home....but what is harder:


1. Your father is gone and in some other place, we cannot take you there and cannot really explain to you why you can't get there, or why your daddy won't come back to see you, but that place is really great and your dad is fine. Just, you know, there....and not here.....forever. I'm so sorry.




2. Baby, your daddy died. There was an accident and he was hurt too badly for the doctors to save him. I'm so sorry to tell you that, honey. He is not going to come back because his body was hurt and stopped working and died...but his spirit is as light as air, like the wind and the love and light inside of him, went back to the stars. That is why, even though he is gone, if you go inside your heart and are very still you can always feel his love...because his love can never, ever die, just like our love for him will never stop. He didn't want to go away from you, he loved you so much, but he is not coming back.



With option number one, you are basically telling this child that his father is in a wonderful place somewhere...but that you can't take him there and you won't/can't say why. Can you imagine how confused you would be at three...just big enough to understand that there are logistics involved in everything you want to do....but not old enough to understand subtlety and euphemism. So, this child is trying to figure the logistics of getting to this wonderful place where his father has gone...and can't get much more than a vague sense that none of his guesses are quite good enough ways to get there. Forget about the pain and confusion of trying to understand why his dad just up and left and went there one day and now won't come back even though this child would give ANYTHING to have his father back. You know?


The ideas your are going for in explaining this kind of thing to a kid are:


1. He loved you so much and it wasn't his choice to go. If there were any way AT ALL for him to come back he would....


2. But he can't, because he is dead. His life is over and he can't come back...


3. But we will always love him and remember his love, you can always go inside your still heart to remember him and feel his love....


4. ...and that is how he will live on inside our hearts and in our memories, even thought we have to find a way to move on from how much it hurts us that he is gone.



He is gone...but we will never stop remembering him. We are still here and we will build a life that he would love to see and we will always make him a part of that life by talking about him and never forgetting all of the wonderful things about him.



A book I really, really love:


A truly incredible book, one I loved as a child and one my child loves now. We talk about death a lot in our house...not in a morbid kind of way...we raise animals for meat and I always wanted to make sure that our kids have "right" spirits in the realm of death, how heavy and important it is when a life, even just the life of a rabbit or a chicken, ends.My DD understands that everything dies..from flowers to people...because we talk about it. Just as we talk about birth a lot. But I'm glad that we always have spoken of death, because someone very close to us died recently, very young, very sudden...and everyone was devastated. Who was the one, who had the most clear and true thing to say about this sudden and premature passing? My three year old.


"She went back to the stars. It's okay to be sad because we will never see her again and that is sad. But if we look at the stars, we can remember her and feel like we are with her again. She is not going to come back. She was so nice we are so sad, but she is dancing in the stars, nothing will make her sad or hurt ever again and someday we will all go back to the stars with her."


That is almost a direct quote. In the middle of a group of sobbing adults this sad, but clear, child spoke the truth. The person who left us was not her parent for sure...but was someone she loved and just completely adored.


OP....a lot of people think that kids in this age group can't be told about death...but I really feel that they are in a unique place developmentally to really make sense out of it and be okay with it. They are so concrete, so rational and so thoughtful at this stage....I really think that the best relief you/his mother could give this child right now, would be to end his confusion about where his father is. His father is gone. He is not going to be able to let go of trying to get to him until he knows that he is gone and not reachable by any means. I promise, the only way forward from this pain is through truth and honest communication. This child will help you all, I can promise that, in his ability to try and find a way forward...his simple questions about "what to do now", etc, will help you all so much with moving one step at a time toward better days.


I'm so sad for this terrible loss your family has suffered. It's the only worst nightmare scenario I have, losing my husband. I swear I can lose anything but one of my kids or my DH. I have no idea how your sister is coping with this...all my blessings and love going to her, what an enormous loss. hug2.gif


Good luck. Remember that children are simpler than we are....a lot of times there is a deeper clarity which comes to them in situations we can't fathom them making sense of. He will be okay...his processing is being held up right now by confusion...let him walk away from confusion, tell him the truth.

Me and DH ...lovin' DD dust.gif(6/08) and DS kid.gif(11/09) Plus NEW BABY!! DD baby.gif (UC-5/12) We heartbeat.gif Water Birth/Homebirth/No Vax or Circ/BF/BW/Country Livin'! chicken3.gif

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#8 of 8 Old 01-27-2012, 10:24 PM
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Originally Posted by mdw4899 View Post

We have all his pictures up and always remind him of daddy. 

you didnt put up any new pictures of daddy after he died did you?


It is just so hard when you lay down with him to take a nap or at bedtime and he says when can I see my daddy? 

someday in future. many believe that that's what's going to happen but i dont know. 


Is he gonna come home tomorrow? 

no he is not.


Is he gonna pick me up from school? 

no he is not.

we faced this same situation when my brother died (due to suicide) and our nephew was 4. to say he ADORED my bro was an understatement. we had a family meeting and all decided how we could tackle it. 


i gave him a picture of my bro but they had to put it away because the picture was constantly rubbing salt on the wound and dn would get asthma attacks. now your dn may not respond in that way. but i had to check.


please look at this as two fold. i think you have to realise that what death means to you is not what it means to your dn.


all his questions are not about pain. missing daddy is always there. but its also about information. an understanding of what is going on. oh so when daddy is not here, 

that is why he needs to hear the word death so there is a term for this thing going on. 


i think the truth will be very merciful at this time. 


he wants both information and emotional support, not really always at the same time. 

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