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Talking to a 3 year old about death, need some suggestions

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but not a recent one. Both my DH and my father have passed away. My dad about 6 years ago and DH's dad just in 2002.

We have pictures up of both of them, one with my FIL, DH and Connor. Connor has known for a long time that's his Grandpa, but never really made a connection to what exactly that meant until recently. I also made a book for my DH for Father's Day last year that has pics of Connor and my DH and my FIL as well. It's one of C's favorite books, so it's read a lot. He recognizes my FIL as Grandpa.

All of a sudden he is very into Grandpa's. The preschool he goes to has a pastor who is an older gentleman who visits with the kids a lot. They told the kids he's like a Grandpa. Now when Connor sees an older gentleman, esp one with white hair, he calls him Grandpa. He also asks when his grandpa is going to come visit and references the pictures.

It's so sad. I try not to cry when he does this but it's hard, the same with my DH. It's been awhile but it's still tough. Especially with the boys and knowing how much they would have loved both our dads and vice versa.

My problem is that I don't know what to tell him. I can't not tell him anything, so far when he's asked he's been distracted shortly after so I haven't had to answer him but I know that won't last for much longer. I really want to give him a good, age appropriate answer or explanation. I remember learning about death at an early age and was terrified for years that my parents would die or that I would die - I don't want him to feel that way.

Thanks for any help or suggestions.

Forgot to add that my FIL passed away when Connor was 9 months old, so he doesn't remember him. It's just from pictures and us talking about him.
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(((hugs))) to you and your son. Losses can be so difficult.

My 3 year old has been very curious about death lately too. Are you religious? I know that my son seems very comforted by our sharing our faith's beliefs about death with him (that death is not the end, we will insha'allah see our loved ones again, etc).

In more of a non-faith-specific way, what I have told him is that when someone gets very old or very sick, their body stops working and the "special part" ('soul', or what-have-you) that made them them leaves, and then their body dies. He seems to understand this. He does occasionally say things like, "I wish we could make [deceased person] feel better", and I explain that I wish we could too, but they had had a full life and it was time for them to leave. He seems to understand that too.

And, yah, I've even "slipped" in an answer to one of his questions and said that he will die too. He got kind of red in the face and very quiet for a few minutes, and then he seemed fine. I hope to raise him to understand that death is completely normal and expected, and not to be feared. I think that my (and dh's) speaking about death without fear does a lot toward this.

I'll be watching this thread for ideas too. It's such a difficult subject!
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Thanks Melanie.

That's what I'd like to do, try and explain it to him in a way that he knows it's normal and nothing to be feared. Right now when he sees an ambulance he is so concerned about the person in there (he loves ambulances and we told him they help people by taking them to the hospital when they are very, very sick) that he gets very sad and says "I hope they feel better soon" He gets very concerned when one of us is sick too, so I'm afraid if I don't go about this right, it will backfire on me. I don't want him to think that if one of us is sick, that we're going to die.

Trying to get into the mind of a 3 year old can be quite challenging!
I'll be watching this thread VERY closely. My step-father who is very close to my DD, is terminally ill with cancer. It started this past Christmas Eve and it's been hard. He's doing well now but my DD knows he's sick but not that he's dying. I figure sometime this year I will have to deal with it so this issue has been in the forefront of my mind. I'll have to not only comfort her, but keep myself together as well. But she's also been curious about death in general and I have also told her that we will all die at some point. Same reaction, red in the face and quiet for a moment. Wondered if I made a mistake saying it. I also don't want death to be a secret. But it is hard for a 3 yr old to grasp the concept of the finality of death (depending on what you believe). She's interested in visiting cemetaries which I've just told her have rock markers so people can visit and remember people who are no longer living. I haven't actually told her people are in the ground there. I think that might creep her out (it creeps me out!).
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I lost my dad to cancer too, it's tough. It was over 6 years ago, but it still hurts. The little ones make it tougher.

My FIL passed away when Connor was 10 months, even at that age it was hard. Connor recognized him during the viewing at the wake, he smiled and put his arms out to him and had a confused look on his face when nothing happened. Of course we didn't have to explain anything to him, but it was still tough.

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Dd is 4, her grandmother just passed away, as did another older relative not that long ago.

We've talked about how all the muscles and organs in your body work hard to help you breathe, get the vitamins out of your food, etc., and that how when they've been doing that for a long time they start to wear out, until eventually they stop working and you die. Not very sentimental, but she's totally into reference books about the body, so it resonates with her.

In the case of terminal illness, we've talked about how sometimes a body part or a body doesn't work right because it came that way or because it caught an infection, and that it keeps doing its best for as long as it can, but sometimes just wears out from the effort.
I personally like the "glove" explaination. You put a glove on your hand and explain that it is like a person. Your hand is the "soul" (or whatever term you want to use) and the glove is like the body. Then you explain that when a body gets old it eventually stops working and the soul leaves the body (take hand out of glove to demonstrate). I try to focus on dying of old age with a child that young, but will tell them the truth if asked about people dying younger.

Sorry if this is not so clear, NAK.
OK, this is a topic I have a lot to say about, so I will try to make it interesting....take what makes sense to you,a nd sorry for running on.

We too have a missing grandparent, who died while I was pregnant with DS. And my brother's fiancee was killed the week before DS was born, and another close friend died a year later, and another in fall 2004, while I was having a miscarriage. They were all young. I think for DH and me, the closeness of death to us has happened at the same time as we have become parents, and it all seems not at all separate from daily life...

When my friend recently was dying, I went to help out a lot, so DS followed what was happening somewhat--and he knew about the miscarriage, too. I had some incredible conversations with him at that time, talking about what I believe, what I don't know, what I hope, and askign what he thinks about it. I think it helped us both connect.

And I think that is the most important thing--that when you talk about it, you are close and loving, and honest. I got DS The Tenth Good Thing About Barney at the library (top awesome book on the subject IMO), and I always cry when I read it. I highly recommend this because it's about the death of a pet, so it is a little safer and less likely to make the grownup completely fall apart, and yet it lets the kid be with you while you are feeling this stuff, and be safe, and ask questions.

And any time your dc initiates play about death, get involved and play it. This is how they figure stuff out, and your presence helps it feel safe.

I jsut explained very specifically to ds the other day that people get sick all the time and get better, like us with the rotavirus, and that only rarely is an illness bad enough to kill a person--because I realized he was having exactly the fear that you are concerned about. Sometimes detail is better than oversimplifying....? We discussed cancer (my friend's and MIL's illness) and how some people (my aunts, a friend) have it and get better, and other times it kills people----

I guess the thing is, to keep trying to hear what the child's questions are, even sometimes unspoken ones (the sick=die thing), and answer them as honestly as possible, as simply as possible--a tricky balance. DS is really into information, and it helps him--he wants to know all about cremation, decomposition, etc, and fortunately we are fine discussing all that. And it's OK to be emotional. Kids can't help being emotional--I think it does them good to see that sometimes adults cry too. And then to see the adults seek out the help and support they need.... A wise woman told me after my m/c, "DS doesn't need for you to keep everything OK for him; he needs to learn from you how families help each other in hard times."

I hope you find the ways that work for you, and I applaud you for workign so hard to find the words that are best.

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I think that you have a wee bit of time yet before really having to face this question, but it's probably coming soon. In the meantime, I would think a lot about your beliefs and what you want your children to think about life after death (or nothing after death or reincarnation, etc.) at this point in their life. We've had deaths to talk about in passing when dd was younger and then around 4 years old, dd finally TRULY UNDERSTOOD death. She understood that death means that we (in her words) "lose loved ones". As in being put in the ground and not taking another breath. That is a life-changing realization for young ones.

One thing to remember is that OUR memories are going to be different than theirs. You cannot expect them to have the same feelings you will. We can be devastated about a death and it means NOTHING to them. It was hard for me to talk about my brother's death and see that my dd was completely unmoved by it because she never knew him.

In the end... I was just straightforward and frank with her. She cried and cried and cried. The hardest thing was trying to explain that I would die and that it could happen at any moment. I didn't sugar-coat it. I was totally honest. I think that's the only way to do it... just be honest about what you believe.
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with a 3 year old ALWAYS just answer the question. the really hard part is to disassociate ur feelings of death with ur son's. he knows nothing about it so be v.v. simple.

my biggest problem was 1. to disassociate my feelings. 2. not read too much into the question. 3. how to answer afterlife question because of my beliefs and disbeliefs.

my dd and i have delved in this matter v. deeply - mainly because of our relatives who are dead, sick and old.

it is amazing what an emotional wreck i get into whenever she asks me the questions. but i just answer her question. i say this is what many people believe and i also say i am not quite sure what i believe but this makes me happier believing this. i am always absolutely honest with her. i admit i dont know or i am not sure.

her questions began when my cat miscarried. we even went thru a phase of really 'blood and gore' stories and games. i realized it was her way of processing this information. the blood and gore shocked me because she has never been exposed to anything like that and i was amazed at her imagination. we also explored a dead fish we found by the river. it meant a great deal to her that she had seen somehting 'dead'.

i have dwelt with questions like why do people die? what exactly happens to our body which causes death (at the airport right before take off), how do people die, what happens when you die, will u never see me again, will you die? i dont want you to die, i dont want grandpa to die, i dont want anyone to ever die... mama how many times have i died? what was i before i was a little girlie, where was i when you were a baby - made us talk about reincarnation and the soul. one of the things i have done is have her choose who to live with if i die.

as you would answer any of their other questions just answer to the point. many times the answers are just one word or yes or no type.

get ready too. they will soon get curious about the human body and soon the birds and the bees too.

just remember all they want to know is a definition of death - not about the emotions you and i feel which only happens after they experience it.

in your case he really isnt asking about death which might follow. he just wants to understand why he doesnt see him.
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Thank you so much everyone, I really appreciate it!
I wanted to let you know about the Grief and Loss forum Suggested Reading List: There are some great kids and adults books that might be helpful to you both. My ds was 3 1/2 yo when my 1st dh died. Some of these books were really helpful to us both.

Thinking of you~

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I don't think you ever get through the death issue with children easy. But I will say that if you are compassionate and honest from the beginning, it is the easiest thing to do when you look back on it all.

My nine and seven year olds talk very frankly about death now. It hasn't always been easy and some moments I still cry when I think back of those sweet difficult moments when reality "hit" them.

One time I heard my two kids crying. I when to the back room to check and they were laying in bed hugging each-other so tight and saying " I will miss you when you die". I wanted to intervene but after a moment I thought it best to get back to washing the dishes and just letting them have that beautiful moment together. I cried while washing though.

I talk about it as going in to our next journey. I don't believe in heaven or hell but I do believe there is something after. I had a near death experience and after the panic part, I went in to an extremely calm state. Ever since then, I don't fear death like I used to. (I almost drowned kayaking in Australia. I couldn't get turned back over and a friend ran over and pulled the kayak back up. Whew. )
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We've only dealt with death as far as pets - but it hasn't been easy. We had a housefire, and we lost our pet cat. There was so much to be traumatized about that it took my daughter awhile to realize Kelsey was dead and wasn't coming back.

I definitely tried to answer the questions she was asking, and not go too far beyond what she wanted to know. She was three at the time of the fire, she didn't mention Kelsey for about 6 months, and I'd say she was 4 or a little older before I felt like she got it. For a few months she was hoping Kelsey would find us when we moved into our new house.

The hardest thing, for me, is when they make the leap to people and then to me and Dh - "Are you and Daddy going to die?" and the inevitable, "When?" are really hard questions. I try to be matter of fact, and admit that it's sad when we have someone we love die. I told her a story about when my grandfather died, and when we got the phone call it was the first time I heard my dad swear. And somehow, even though he wasn't sick, I knew that because my dad swore, someone died. Halle loves that story, and she asks if I said a bad word when Kelsey died, and if it's ok if she says one when someone she know dies.

Sometimes I think the bad word is much more interesting than the death. But, we talk and talk and talk, and I think she has accepted death as a part of life. But I am in no way ready for this experience to be repeated with our current pets, or god forbid, someone we love.

Good luck, thanks for the great thread!
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Originally Posted by cj'smommy
He also asks when his grandpa is going to come visit and references the pictures.

It's so sad. I try not to cry when he does this but it's hard, the same with my DH. It's been awhile but it's still tough. Especially with the boys and knowing how much they would have loved both our dads and vice versa.
This is a hard one, but my take on this is that while I don't want to scare my son about dying, I also don't want death to be so scary that we can't talk about it.

Why do you try not to cry? I've been reading a book on getting boys to talk about their emotions, and one of the things they say is important is giving boys words and models for emotions. Instead of trying not to cry, I would cry a bit, and then explain that you are sad because you miss your dad, and that you are sorry he can't meet your boys.

As for making the connection to you dying -- my son made that connection VERY quickly, and while I'd like to think he's exceptional
, I think his exceptional quality is being able to articulate the connections he's made.

I actually wrote down our first conversation about death, which happened at about 3 1/2, mostly because it covered birth, death and everything in between!

He saw our wedding picture asked what we were doing (a common conversation). I told him that we were getting married. He then asked
T: and was I still in your tummy then?
M: yes, you were so tiny we didn't even know you were there. [he was born 8 years after we were married, fyi]
He then asked a series of questions about how he was born - did the doctor help me out? Then he asked:
T: when were you little, mama?
M: I was little when I lived with Grandma and Grandpa.
T: and were you in their tummy?
M: yes, I was in Grandma's tummy at one point in time.
T: and when was Grandma little?
M: When she lived with HER mom and dad, my grandma and grandpa and your great grandparents.
T: and was she in her mama's tummy?
M: yes, she was in my grandma's tummy.
T: where is your grandma?
M: my grandma was killed in a car accident.
T: why?
M: (explained the accident story, concluding with sometimes when there's a really, really bad accident, the doctors can't fix it)
T: and is your grandma dead?
M: yes she is. She's died, and she's up in heaven with God.
T: will you die?
M: well, yes, someday, a long time from now, I will die.
T: why?
M: well, sometimes when we get old, we get really, really sick and we die. Then we go into heaven with God.
T: where's God?
M: in heaven.
T: where's God in heaven?
M: I don't really know. That's a good question. Maybe we should ask Pastor S.
T: when we will ask Pastor S?
M: well, if we see her on Tuesday. Or maybe I'll send her an e-mail and ask her. Should I do that?
T: OK"

We have conversations about death every 3-4 months I would say. His big worry is when people will die -- it's hard for him to understand that we don't know. But I try to reassure him that we all want to live to an old age, and all the things we are doing to stay healthy to do that.

In order to respect kids, I think we have to be honest with them, but give them short answers and wait for more questions.

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Sounds similar to our situation. My father (the boys' grandfather) died when my oldest was 1 1/2. He'd seen him twice and "talked" to him on the phone. But we have lots of photos, and we talk about him, so he knows a lot about him. We just try to talk about it in terms he'll understand.
The other day Ryan (now 3 1/2) drew a nice picture and said it was for Bampa. He knows he died. So I said that it was so nice that he drew a picture for him, and that we could all enjoy looking at it and thinking about him, but we can't give it to him.
He talks about it from time to time, and he knows that when people die their bodies are all done working. He also knows that Bampa was old and very sick, and most people don't die until they're very old. He knows we will all die someday, but not for a long long time and he doesn't have to worry. We talk about how we miss Bampa and that's it's sad when someone dies.
I'm crossing my fingers that my mother (who is now going through chemo and radiation for a fast-growing stomach tumor she just had removed) does well, because the boys know her very well. I think it would be much harder for him if she died so soon after my father. But I agree that it's best to be honest with our children about death. Over time they will come to understand it in their own ways.
There are often other opportunities to talk about it, ie. the squirrel we saw in the road, or the bird egg that fell out of the nest next to our house. I'm always honest, and Ryan asks lots of questions. I know he's heard enough when he starts talking about something else, so we move on. So far so good.

- Krista
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