Dear Mr. Dad: My father, who had been sick for quite some time, recently died. He and my 7-year old daughter were very close. Naturally, she’s sad that Gramps isn’t around anymore, but I know that she doesn’t completely get why. Do you think she’s old enough to grasp what death is? If so, what’s the best way to talk with her about my dad in a way that will mean something to her?
I’m very sorry to hear about your father. Chances are, the concept of death isn’t completely foreign to your daughter—she’s probably seen dead insects, a dead skunk or raccoon on the road, or maybe a family pet died. But it’ll be a few more years before the stark permanence of death sinks in (BTW, that’s a concept that’s not easy for older kids either; most play video games and if their character dies, all they have to do is wait a few minutes and they’ll be resurrected). So while she definitely gets that something pretty major has happened with Gramps (as you mentioned, she’s aware that he hasn’t come to visit in a while), death is still a relatively abstract concept to her. Explaining it is going to be a little tricky, but it can be done.
Obviously, regardless of your daughter’s chronological age, how deeply she understands death will depend on how mature she is. Only you know the answer to that one. That said, you can count on several things happening. First, your daughter will ask you a lot of questions. She may rattle off a dozen at a time or she may ask the same one over and over. She may have questions every day or skip a few days only to pick back up later. Before you start answering, it’s important to understand that every question she asks has two components: the words you hear and the thought behind him. Right now—and for the next few years—the main thought it, “how is this going to affect me?” She may not be able to articulate that thought, but on some level, she’s wondering whether the same thing will happen to her—even if she doesn’t know exactly what that means.
Second, you’ll need to explain what death is. But think long and hard before you open your mouth. Start with something basic, like, “Gramps was very sick and his body stopped working.” And stay far, far away from phrases like, “we lost Gramps,” “he went away,” or “he fell asleep.” Death is a topic that makes most of us feel uncomfortable, so instead of dealing with it head-on, we find a variety of ways to sugar-coat it. But while adults generally understand the meaning beneath the sugar, kids don’t. And if you don’t give your daughter simple, truthful explanations, her imagination will take over and she may worry herself sick about anything or anyone (including herself) getting lost, or about whether anyone who goes away will ever come back. And she could develop a real fear of falling asleep.
Third, if your daughter doesn’t ask many questions, gently encourage her. Ask whether she misses her grandfather, and tell her that you do too. If you think she’s having trouble coming to terms with the death, ask her to draw a picture of a happy memory she has of Gramps. In addition to helping her process his death, it could help start the important process of keeping her grandfather’s memory alive.
Finally, if you don’t have all the answers, don’t be hard on yourself. Just be honest and avoid the temptation to make stuff up. If you don’t know something, just tell your daughter that you’ll find out and will let her know as soon as possible.