Saturday, May 5, 2012

Explaining Death to a Three-Year-Old

Well, if you've followed me for long, you might gather that we prefer the open & honest path to difficult subjects with Jena. Of course, we attempt to word things on her level, but we've never shielded her from difficult topics. Death is no exception.

Jena has attended every funeral we've gone to since she was born. She went to her first one when she was about 6 months old.

And of course, you may remember when her kitten met an untimely death.

So our daughter is no stranger to the topic. But still, she's only 3 yrs old. And... this is the first close person to her to have passed.


When I got the phone call the night Papaw went into the hospital, Jena was with me. I told her Papaw (my FIL) was very sick and was at the hospital. His heart was very sick. But only adults could go where he was, so she would spend the night with Grandpa (my dad). We had to go fast, and please cooperate and do what I say, because this is an emergency.

Then I had to explain what "emergency" meant. She was proud of her new big word, and insisted on telling everyone that we had an e-mer-gency.

She told me Papaw needed to drink some more water (he always used to say that drinking water makes you better). She also told me that the doctor needed to take his "thing" and listen to Papaw's heart go "ba-boom, ba-boom". Smart kid.

I knew he had passed before we got to the hospital, but chose not to tell her that night. I knew there would be questions, and I knew she wouldn't want to leave me. So I met my dad in the parking lot of the hospital and handed her off, before heading in to be with Jason and the rest of the family (he had been on shift & so drove straight there).


The next day my dad brought Jena to my mother-in-law's house, where we were. We intercepted them in the driveway, so she wouldn't come in & see all the other people, and the crying. My dad chose to leave immediately.

Our conversation went something like this (Jason & I did this together, but I don't remember who said what, so words in blue are both of ours):

Mommy & Daddy need to talk to you about something really serious, okay?
Remember last night when I told you Papaw was really sick? His heart was really sick?


Well, he died. Papaw died.

Papaw died?

Yes, Papaw died.

Where he die?

(we knew this was coming, and Jason had prepared for it)

We walked her to the back yard, where Papaw had collapsed while working on the fence he was installing.

We showed her the spot.

Right here. Papaw was putting in a new fence, and he collapsed right here. The ambulance came to get him, but he was too sick, and he died on the way to the hospital.

long pause

If your heart no go ba-boom ba-boom no more, you die.

Yes, baby. If your heart stops going ba-boom, ba-boom, you die.
So Papaw's dead. He's in Heaven now, with God. He won't be here anymore.
Do you have any questions?

shakes head 'no'

Okay, well you let us know if you have any questions, or want to talk about anything, okay?

We went inside, where everyone immediately fell silent. Someone mouthed to me "does she know?", and I shook my head yes. Jena got down & started playing.


A couple of hours later, we were eating dinner (yummy church lady food), on the back deck.

Jena asked her first question.

Papaw died...

Yes, hunny, Papaw's dead.

Will Daddy finish the fence?

Of course, baby. Of course, Daddy will finish Papaw's fence for him.


Later that night, I was giving her a bath at my mother-in-law's house. Finally in a room alone, relaxed, the questions started coming. And then she asked for Jason, wanting to talk to Daddy about "dead" and "deading".

We talked a long time that night. I don't remember all of the conversation, but I do remember preparing her for the visitation & funeral, explaining that we would see Papaw one more time.

How we see Papaw? Papaw's in Heaven.


Well, hunny, when you go to Heaven, you get a new body, that's not sick anymore, not hurt anymore, it's just perfect! So Papaw's in Heaven with his new body, but his old body is still here. When we go to the funeral we'll see his old body one more time.

She thought for a minute.

I think Papaw's in his new body dancing in Heaven.

Yes, baby, I bet he is.

At one point, I could tell she was conflicted. She looked as if she wanted to cry, but was holding it back.

And so, I explained.

It's okay to be sad, hunny. We can be happy for Papaw that he's in Heaven now, we can be happy for him that he got his new body and isn't sick anymore, but we can still be sad for us, because we miss him so much. That's okay.

I was crying before I finished. And so was she.


Over the next few days, we talked a lot about Papaw in Heaven, in his new body, talked about his old body. Talked about being happy for him, being sad for us. I swear, I think she gets it better than any of us.


We took her to preschool two days after Papaw died. I informed the teachers, and told them that we were open & honest with her, that we were Christians, so that is the direction our conversations come from, and that if Jena had any questions or wanted to talk, they were welcome to talk with her, as much as they were comfortable.

She went to her old babysitter's twice (three times? I don't remember), and we also informed them that they were welcome to talk to her if she wanted. We are very familiar with the family, and knew their beliefs were the same as ours, so just told them to be honest with her if she wanted to talk.

Same at church on Sunday. She went to her class as usual, and we informed the teacher.

She talked with the babysitter a little, but not with anyone else. And that's okay too.


I could go on & on about the conversations we had with her the past few weeks. I really could. It's amazing to hear a three year old who seems to get it better than most adults.


As always, thanks for checking in.


Cwtch Cardiff said...

I'm so very sorry to hear about your Father in Law. My thoughts are with you and your family.

I did like the question about the fence though - definately a very 3 year old question - and you're right, they do seem to 'get it' better than adults sometimes.

Amber said...

:( Children are resilient and innocent in their simplicity! Isn't it amazing? Good to hear about your experiences as we will be crossing this road soon ourselves with my mom! Auburn is so attached to her Nana, I've been worrying about his particular subject!

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