Posted on August 12, 2015
A Time For Goodbyes (Part 1 of 2)
Our family is still in collective shock at the sudden passing of my father-in-law. Catherine is, quite understandably, still shaken. To say that her family is close would be a gross understatement. I am thankful to them that they so graciously and willingly allowed me into such an incredible family dynamic when Catherine and I first started dating.
Catherine and her father were exceptionally close to one another, talking on the phone or seeing one another with remarkable regularity. Their in-person visits happened with greater frequency once we made them grandparents. He was the perfect doting grandfather to my daughter and I knew immediately that my role in our family was to be one that allowed Catherine the space to grieve, giving her a shoulder when she wanted, and privacy when she needed it. This also left much of the daunting task of explaining where Paw-Paw went to our toddler, Anna.
Every parent feels their child is exceptional in one form or another. While cognitive ability and motor skills can bolster this perception, I learned during this process that I had to understand and respect Anna’s psychological development. Three year old’s who can say their ABCs and count to 10 may seem whip smart, but they still haven’t had the chance to grasp the concept of mortality and the permanence of death.
Before I sat down with Anna (in between the 2nd and 3rd showings of ‘Finding Nemo’) I did a little research on the topic. Thankfully, the folks over at zerotothree.org compiled a great amount of information on how to discuss death with kids. Honestly, I would have been nervously traversing an emotional mine field without their help.
If I hadn’t known better, I likely would have fumbled through the explanation, saying something like, “Paw-Paw went to sleep,” which I learned is a huge mistake. At age 3, Anna and other toddlers are very literal thinking beings. Saying that her Paw-Paw went to sleep and won’t wake up could have scarred her, instilling in her an irrational fear of bedtime. In fact, the most important thing to do ahead of talking to a child about death is to make certain you are in a frame of mind to relate to them completely on the level of their understanding. It is OK, in most cases, to explain to a toddler about how bodies can stop working and that the deceased is gone. Most importantly, do not overshare with your child. They may not be advanced enough to process the unsolicited information you give them. In short, let them ask the questions and answer in brief terms.
Another exercise that Anna and I did was to put together a memory book of Paw-Paw that included pictures of her grandfather that she really liked and that she thought would be a good way to later explain to her little brother who Paw-Paw was. This helped us both to remember the enjoyable memories of Paw-Paw while fully grasping the idea that he was gone forever.
Because this topic is both difficult and inevitable, the second part of this post is going to deal with how to prepare your young ones for a funeral or memorial while also being able to be the rock of stability for your spouse. I’m also going to discuss the importance of taking time to allow yourself to grieve as well.