Child whose dad has died needs frank explanation

Child Life

March 31, 1996|By Beverly Mills | Beverly Mills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My 3-year-old son's father died when he was 1 1/2 . He's starting to ask questions about where his father is, and I'm having a hard time explaining it. He thinks heaven is a city far away that his father can come back from and visit. What am I supposed to say?

Catherine Morgan

Fredericksburg, Va.

While our natural inclination is to shield our children from pain and sorrow, children coping with the death of a loved one need honest, straightforward answers.

As difficult or callous as it may sound, the word dead needs to be clearly defined. Avoid phrases such as "passed away," "went to sleep" or "God wanted Daddy in heaven." While such phrases may comfort adults, they only confuse, or even frighten, a preschooler.

"Three-year-olds are very literal so it's important to explain what death is as concretely as possible," says William C. Kroen, author of the recently published "Helping Children Cope With the Loss of a Loved One, A Guide for Grownups" (Free Spirit, $13.95).

Mr. Kroen, who counsels children in crisis in the Cambridge, Mass., schools, recommends using a dead bird or squirrel to illustrate death's permanence.

"Take that opportunity to say to the child, 'This is a dead squirrel. It does not eat, walk or run around. That's what happened when Daddy died. Everything stopped.' "

Because young children are so literal, misconceptions about heaven are not surprising after a death in the family, experts say.

"I would be very plain, simple, honest and not talk too much about angels and flying and heaven," says reader J. Morrison of Minneapolis.

Feel free to draw on your family's religious beliefs, but be careful how you word it, says Helen Fitzgerald, author of "The Grieving Child, a Parent's Guide" (Fireside, $9). She suggests saying: "Church teaches us we go to a place called heaven. It's not a place we can go visit. It's not a place you can come back from."

Mr. Kroen says that explanations of death need not be given all at once. Ms. Fitzgerald says parents should expect -- and encourage -- a grieving child to ask questions throughout his life.

"Every time a child goes through a developmental age, they miss that parent who was supposed to be there, and they revisit their grief," explains Ms. Fitzgerald, who helped her own four children cope with the death of her husband before becoming a certified death educator.

"It's not really sad, acute grief but a genuine yearning and missing."

Here are more ideas:

Commemorate the dead in ways that are meaningful to young children. David Caprara, a father in Tacoma, Wash., is making a book for his daughter after the death of his wife. Family and friends are helping, writing down their own memories. And, he's editing the family's home videos into a version just for his daughter.

Seek the help of a trusted clergyman. "Maybe he can give some insight on how to deal with her child's questions and provide brief counseling," Anna Woodriff of Peoria, Ariz., says.

Monitor the cartoons your young children watch, Ms. Fitzgerald and Mr. Kroen say. If they see Wile E. Coyote spring back to life after a boulder crushes him, they'll wonder why daddy can't reappear.

Tell your child that Daddy or Grandpa didn't choose to die, recommends a mother from Durham, N.C. "I told my children that Daddy didn't want to die and that he fought it and tried very hard not to but couldn't help it. I think that's important for them to hear."

Reassure anxious children who fear death. "Say to a child, 'Usually when people die they are very, very, very, very old or very, very, very, very sick and Daddy was very, very, very, very sick,' Mr. Kroen advises. "Use those multiple very's a lot."

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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