K.E. asks from Bernville, PA on October 17, 2006
Death of a Close Relative: How to Explain/comfort a 4 Year Old
My mother-in-law has terminal cancer and is not expected to make it much longer. My 4 year old is very close to her and is aware that Mom-Mom doesn't "feel well" a lot, and that she has cancer, that she's not sick like getting a cold. I didn't want my daughter to be paranoid she would die every time she gets the sniffles. How much detail is appropriate to give a child of her age? How often is appropriate for her to visit? I don't want to emotionally scar her through this. Should she attend the funeral? I think probably, but I'm unsure. Any advice would be appreciated.
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So What Happened?™
My mother-in-law passed on Thursday, Dec 28. I had discussed the situation with my 4 year old several times, giving her more information as she asked for it. The hard part for me is the unexpected questions such as "Daddy doesn't have a mommy anymore?" "Pop-Pop isn't married anymore?" "Are we going to dead Mom-Mom's house today?" I try to hide my shock, be very patient, and answer questions and offer guidance on appropriate things to say around others. She has asked to go to the funeral so that she can put a flower on Mom-mom's casket to say goodbye. I will take her next week so if someone wants to know the outcome there, send me a message and I'll let you know.
S.J. answers from Philadelphia on October 17, 2006
My daughter is 4 1/2 and recently lost her great-grandmother. She wasn't that close with her since she lived far away, but she definitely knew her and spent time with her. She did go to the funeral. She just asked questions like why's grandma laying there, why's she staying here and we're leaving. So we explained that she died and that she was going to live in heaven, and named other people/pets that she would be with now. That's all it took. I don't think at that age you need to do too much explaining, they're just looking for some kind of answer. Also, be prepared for questions a few months from now. Something will make her think about it and she'll probably start asking all over again. Good luck!
T.C. answers from Harrisburg on October 17, 2006
Hi K.. It is a very tough situation. When I was 5 my grandfather died, rather unexpectedly. My grandmother explained it to me in such a way that made it very easy for me, even at the age of 5, to understand and it's how I reccomend anyone explain death to a child.
She told me that people were like eggs and that the body was just a shell. When someone dies, it's really just like throwing away the shell. What's inside is what is most important and that's the part we keep with us. I don't know how religious your family is so it's up to you how philosophically involved you want to get with that explanation, but I found it to be simple, understandable, and to the point.
When my father died a few years later, my mother gave me a short story called "Waterbugs and Dragonflies". It talks about a group of waterbugs that noticed one day that every once in a while, one of them would unexpectedly climb a lilly stalk and disapear above the surface. They made a pact that the next time one of them left, they would come back and tell the rest of the group where they had gone and why.
Soon after, one of the waterbugs finds himself climbing a stalk, breaking the surface of the water, and transforming into a beautiful dragonfly. He loves his new life as a dragonfly and realizes that he is different and will have to break the pact because he can never return to the bottom of the pond and explain to the other waterbugs what had happened to him... they would just have to wait and find out for themselves!
I think there were also excercises in the back of the book to further help your child understand death and why it happens. I definitely think it's important for your child to attend the funeral. She needs to have that same closure as anyone else!
My love and prayers are with you all!
Hi! I just looked it up and the book is called
Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children
by Doris Stickney
Here is a link where you can read an excerpt from the book
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M.M. answers from Pittsburgh on October 18, 2006
My heart goes out to you in this difficult time. It is good to know that you have told her that her grandmother is ill. This lets her know what is going on and allows her the opportunity to ask questions. Also, when her grandmother does pass away, it won't be as much of a shock to her.
Once the time comes, ask her if she wants to attend the funeral and let her attend the funeral if she wants to go. It will be important for her to help understand what has happened. At four, I wouldn't push the issue of attending. Do what makes her feel comfortable. Maybe she can skip the actual funeral and burial, but be present for any lunch after. Let her visit her grandmother as often as she and her grandmother are able to visit. These are special times that both will treasure. Take lots of pictures of the two of them together. Let your daughter ask her grandmother questions about how she is feeling. Children this age really don't have a concept of death, so she may ask some very strange questions and not totally understand what is going on. That is normal.
These links helped us when we had to tell our son last year that his uncle passed away and again two weeks ago when his great-grandmother died suddenly, though not all that unexpectedly.
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S.F. answers from Atlanta on October 17, 2006
Children's literature is a good way to talk about death. Some suggestions:
ANGEL CAT BY MICHAEL GARLAND
REMEMBER RAFFERT BY JOY JOHNSON..THESE 2 ABOUT PET
WHY DO PEOPLE DIE BY CYNTHIA MCGREGOR
LIFETIMES BY BRYAN MELLONIE (ABOUT LIFECYCLES)
HELP ME SAY GOODBYE BY JANIS SILVERMAN (ART THERAPY BOOK..HELP PREPARE CHILD TO SAY GOODBYE)
Goodluck! Please let me know if these help.
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A. answers from Philadelphia on October 18, 2006
I am sorry to hear about your Mother in Law.
I have a 3 and 4 year old who lost their Daddy (my husband) last year. He had been sick for awhile and was in and out of the hospital. I would bring the kids in as much as I was able. When he was home, they would always be there when I would help him and always asking questions. He would even let them help if they wanted and if it was safe. I would let your daughter visit as much as you and she wants. They know that Daddy went up in the sky bc he was too sick for Dr's to help and now that he is up there, he is all better but, he has to stay up there to help other people. They also know he is always watching over us. Occasionally they would ask why Daddy couldn't visit, etc. I do try and talk about my husband alot to them, mostly bc I know at their young age they may forget.
I did not let them go to the funeral. Mostly bc I think that seeing all those people so upset would be traumatic for them, but they did go to the gathering afterwards (we had Shiva). I want them to know that eventhough we are sad b/c Daddy is gone that he is all better now and we should be happy. I even had my daughter tell my a couple moths ago when she saw me crying about my husband that it is OK b/c Daddy doesn't hurt anymore (which of course made me cry more).
My suggestion is to explain as much to your daughter as she wants to know but obviously in terms she would understand. My daughter and son are very inquisitive so I would let them know anything they want. I don't know if this will have a long term effect but I just have to take it one thing at a time.
I would call your pediatrician and ask them and just be very wary of your daughter's behavior and any changes.
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J.B. answers from Harrisburg on October 18, 2006
I am sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. I think if we focus on the fact that we are all here just a short time and then we go to an enormously better place and teach our children to live their lives with this always at the forefront of their mind, living for God and that it is in his perfect timing that he is calling Mom-Mom to him and that one day we will all be together again. Knowing that it isnt just a random act that Mom-Mom is leaving and its not anything to be fearful of because God will take care of Mom-Mom in heaven and your little girl here on earth. Knowing that there is someone so powerful is in control of everything may ease your daughter's fear. If you can find positive even in a negative situation using your faith will help your whole family cope w/ this death and much more throughout her life.
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A.B. answers from York on October 18, 2006
I just went through this also with my great grandmother. She was sick for a few months and me and my kids spend just about everyday with her. I dont think you can really prepare a child that young for death but just keep them positive about it so that what memories they do have are positive. After our grandmother did pass I took her to the viewing and told her that this is a time for us to tell grandma good bye and that we love her very much and are going to miss her. I didnt take her to the rest of it because i knew she wasnt really going to understand what was going on. I have told her that grandma went to a very special place where all her booboos and hurts are gone and shes not sick any more. Grandma is way up in the sky with all the stars and now she has really pretty wings so that when your sleeping she can fly down and sit beside you and keep you safe and warm. If you ever get mad or sad you can talk to grandma and she will always listen to you. But anyways I just try to keep it in a positive attitude because the last thing you want to do is scare them. Now my daughter when shes mad at me goes to her room and tells grandma on me and she goes to bed with out a fight just so grandma can sit beside her and rub her hair. Just keep reminding her that grandma loved her very much and will always be watching her. Sorry if i rammbled a bit much but I really hope something here can help you even a little bit. Best of hopes to you and you family
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M.G. answers from Harrisburg on October 19, 2006
My husband's grandfather passed away recently from a freak thing (not expected). Granted, he was in his 80's, but it was hard explaining to my 4 & 5 yr old chilren. He was on life support before we let him go. I did not let my children go see him only bc he was not conscious and looked nothing like they knew him. I did explain though that as you get older your body does not work as well, but when we pass we go to heaven. It helped my daughter knowing he was somewhere and she could visit his "bones". I hope you get through this.
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T.B. answers from Philadelphia on October 17, 2006
That is a tough situation to be in and I really feel for you.
I only ever knew 1 of my grandparents, my grandmother on my Mom's side, and she lived 12 hours away so, unfortunately I did not have the chance to form close relationships with my grandparents. My experiences are a little different but hopefully you'll find some good suggestions on this site. My Mom passed away 5 years ago, and I now have a 5 month old daughter. She will never have the opportunity to know my Mom in person, but I have already started talking to her about her and how she is here in spirit. I also took some special pictures of my Mom and made a collage and hung it in my daughter's room so that her "guardian angel" will always be there and she can get used to seeing her face (her smile).
In your case, maybe you can just continue to tell your daughter how her Mom-Mom isn't feeling well, but that she will always be there even if she can't see Mom-Mom. I read the other response about people compared to egg shells, and that's a really good one to keep in mind. My feeling (which may be different from yours) is similar to the egg shell. Our body is just our vehicle for doing what we're supposed to do here on earth. Once we've accomplished enough, we are released to go on to a better place--free from pain and suffering. My Mom battled a really rare form of cancer that is incurable and after 3 years her body, not her spirit, had had enough. Our spirits and memories live on forever. So maybe part of the process can be that you and your daughter take on a special project and she can pick out some favorite photos of her and her Mom-Mom to put in a scrapbook or frame to keep her spirit and memory going forever.
Good luck with everything.