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Three-Year-Old Told That Grandpa Died
Q: My father recently passed away. I decided not to take my three-year-old son to the funeral. I said that grandpa had gone on a long, long bye-bye. This "bye-bye" has been used whenever my husband went on a business trip. But my son has been very aggressive these last few weeks. He hasn't been as loving towards his grandma and has been looking at pictures of grandpa, wondering where he is. So, I took him to the gravesite, telling him about it beforehand.
When we got there, he was yelling for his grandpa. I showed him the grave and explained as simply as I could that Grampa wasn't with us anymore, that he had died. I talked about the coffin and how grandpa's body was in the ground. I also emphasized that we had pictures to remember grandpa by and that we could visit the cemetary anytime. I could tell he was thinking pretty hard about this and then he pointed and asked me if this was where grandpa's head was. I said yes and showed him where his feet were and that his body was there, as well. When we left, he said he missed his grandpa. Was this an okay way to explain things?
A: You made your father's death real by using the word "dead" and answering your son's age-appropriate questions about where his head and feet were in the ground. The reality of his grandpa's death, explained in an age-appropriate manner, was what he needed. Confusing him by having told him that his beloved grandpa had gone on a "long bye-bye" caused him to act out his confusion, sadness, and anger in an aggressive manner. At some unarticulated level, he was unsettled by his grandpa's not returning from that "long bye-bye"; after all, your husband always returned from his long good-byes. We must not use phrases like that or "he's gone to sleep" when describing death to our young children.
You corrected yourself by giving him his trip to the gravesite, where he was allowed to hear the truth about his grandpa's death, where his body was, and that he was never coming back. Your son may experience further periods of anger, sadness, anxiety, and fear as part of his moving through this grief. He may regress and have physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, and nightmares. Your son will benefit from being comforted physically as well as being played with one on one. Never deflect questions that he has about his grandpa or about death and dying. Your children's librarian will be able to recommend many books that help kids deal with the death of a loved one. I am sure that you will help keep your dad's memory alive for your son.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.