Unfortunately I had to try to explain “death” to my five and a half year old today.
After a long fight with lung cancer, my stepdad passed away last night. Although we knew his condition was likely terminal (due to his age and overall health), his health rapidly deteriorated this week at a pace we did not expect. So I knew I would need to have this conversation with my young child at some point, it just came before I was ready. Not that you are ever ready to tell someone that a loved one has passed away.
Though I got the news of his passing last night, I waited until today to tell my daughter. She’s very sensitive, so I just didn’t want to mess this up.
She had dance class this morning, so of course I didn’t want to tell her before we left for fear of her breaking down and crying in class. After class we had some errands to run, so I didn’t want to tell her while we were out for fear that she would break down in public. I even bought her a toy at Target to ensure she’d be in an upbeat mood today. Finally, we arrived back home and had lunch. The plan was to invite her to rest with me in my room after we ate. This way she’d be in a comfortable environment, I’d be there with her, she could hold her new toys, we could watch TV if she wanted, or if she just needed to get really upset we’d be in a safe place for that.
When we talk about death, we do so with respect to our Christian beliefs. We believe the soul goes to heaven after the body expires. So once we were comfortable, I told her that I wanted to let her know that Grandpa was with Jesus now (she knew he was very sick). Her initial reaction was to cry a bit. I told her it was OK to be sad and to miss someone we love, but that I felt happy that Grandpa’s body was not hurting him anymore and that he was surrounded by love, and maybe that would make her happy, too. Then she asked me a few questions that I did not know the answer to (“Is there land in Heaven?”), started to get sad and cry a bit more, and then decided she wanted to watch TV. And so that was that.
The rest of the day consisted of her having a friend over to play, eating dinner, taking a bath, and getting ready for bed. She didn’t really talk about it again, except I heard her ask my husband as I was closing the door to her sister’s room, “Did you know Grandpa died?” This was a very matter-of-fact question, so all in all I was a bit relieved that she had taken the news so well.
I went in her room to read her a story and tuck her in – before I turned out the lights I asked her if she needed to talk about anything. She did. It’s very hard to keep your composure and focus when your five year old says, “I’m just so sad that Grandpa died,” while sniffling, with tears running down her face. I managed to keep it together, though, and let her cry a bit more. I told her again how he was happy in Heaven, and suggested we say a prayer. Eventually I convinced her that Grandpa would want her to go to sleep and rest so that she would be stay healthy, so she decided she was done crying for today. I told her she can cry more tomorrow if she needs to, and that was OK with her.
It’s interesting that she’s having such a strong reaction to the situation. Due to our moves and his health, she only saw my stepdad fewer than ten times. At this age, children’s hearts are so tender and welcoming… Seeing this loving side of her expressed like this just makes me like her even more. I feel so bad that she has to go through a loss like this at this age, and I hope she feels better about it all very soon.
There is no good way to explain death to a child. You cannot escape the hurt or confusion they will feel. Shielding them from the pain is not an option. I hope that we are handling this in a way that helps her grow and learn and find peace.
This is officially my least favorite part about parenting.