This past Friday my daughter lost her Paw Paw to a combination of Alzheimer's and heart disease. It's not necessarily her first brush with death. Her daycare had several class pets die and erected a little graveyard called the Garden of the Fallen Tree where they had small funerals. She knows that she's named after a friend of mine and my wife's who passed away a decade ago, but this is the first time that I've had to explain to her that someone she loved was simply not going to be on the planet anymore.
It's one of those defining parent moments, and as usual I muddled through with a combination of improvisation and the fact that a five-year-old is much smarter than me. She seems to accept it well, and as I often do I compile the things I learned from my mistakes and present them to you in hopes you'll do better.
Get a Book In House With One F our motto is, "When in Doubt, Get a Book". It's our answer to everything from a bad day to minor car repair, and it's often helpful for the more difficult of milestones in a child's life. We got a Berenstain Bears book about moving when we moved, and this time we picked up I Miss You by Pat Thomas.
Here's the thing; you may think you're a great communicator. Hell, I do this for a living, explaining things to others. It's different, though, when it's your kid crying and upset and full of questions. In that case you'll find that the calm act of reciting someone else's words can really set a more sedate and reflective pace, not to mention the fact that for most kids something printed on the page is always going to carry the weight of truth a bit heavier than their parents.
Just be warned that sometimes books are written by complete nutbangers and you should always check the reviews first.
Encourage Emotional Expression Through Activities I'm not sure if this is a Southern thing or a universal thing, but one of the signs someone has lost a loved one that I always see is a pristinely clean house and the smell of freshly cooked or baked food. When life throws a curve ball, often the way we adults swing for the pitch is to keep our hands busy doing the basic tasks of life.
Kids have that same need, but usually fewer responsibilities (And take less satisfaction in them in any case). This is a good time to bust out a craft project. Get them to draw pictures of good times spent with the lost person, or maybe sing a song that adequately expresses their feelings. If they're more physical, suggest a walk in the park or something to get their muscles engaged so their brain can install this new, terrible update in their brains without having nervous energy scream at them.
Plus, there's always just the slightest chance you may get them to clean their room this way.
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Make Sure They Know YOU'RE Not Going Anywhere One of the very first deductive leaps a child is going to make when you tell them that someone they loved has died is that, "Holy heck, mom and dad and everyone I know could vanish at any moment!" Now, this is technically true, but statistically highly unlikely. Now is not to the time to mention that your kid is at all times one distracted song shuffle on your iPhone while driving away from being an orphan.
If you don't co-sleep, you'd better just go ahead and prepare to do that for a night or two. The odds of your kid waking up in the middle of the night in her room alone and panicking that you're not there any more are virtually certain. Also, I found math worked well for proving that my wife and I weren't going anywhere. I showed her on a scale of 1 to 100 where her Paw Paw had lived to, and how old my wife and I were, and how old she was. It's nice, physical representation of the best case scenario that will hopefully calm her fear of impending morality. However you do it, know that the fear is there.
Don't Be Disturbed by How Creepy Your Kid Gets Kids are naturally curious and have zero sense of decorum, so don't be surprised when they approach death the exact same way they approach finding a ladybug in the yard. They are going to give it a funny name and poke it with a stick. That's what kids do.
My daughter has pretended to be dead about 15 times since explaining what happened. Thankfully it's not a great performance, just her with her eyes open and her tongue out looking silly. I "bury" her with a blanket and yell "WHY GOD WHY!" for a second and then she comes back to life. Is this incredibly inappropriate at this time? Ayup, but so is expecting a kid to be able to deal with all this like an adult so I just roll with it.
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The Pile of Good Things There's a Doctor Who quote from the episode where he and Amy Pond visit Vincent Van Gogh, helping him fight a monster only to return to the present and find he still committed suicide anyway. It goes like this...
The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things... The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things, and make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.
Kids think the world revolves around them. They are the most adorable psychopaths in the world. The down side of that narcissism is that when something terrible happens they tend to blame themselves. Mom and dad fighting? Must be something I did. That sort of thing.
The one thing I was most adamant about was telling my daughter that she made her Paw Paw's life brighter and better by being a part of it. We went on and on about all the good times that they had playing catch and going to the park and having Christmas, always telling her how proud we were of her for being such a good granddaughter. I doesn't eliminate that childish guilt entirely, of course, but the pile of things works both ways. Her little heart may be broken, but that doesn't mean all the wonder it in necessarily has to leak out. You just need to make sure you remind children it's still in there.