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Explaining death to a 2-year-old — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011Explaining death to a 2-year-old — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My grandfather passed away this morning so I’m preparing to spend several days out-of-state with my parents, grandmother, and other family members. My husband and in-laws will take care of my 2-year-old in my absence. What can I tell my son about what is happening? He had four extended visits with my grandfather in his life.

Aggrieved Granddaughter

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Dear Aggrieved Granddaughter,

Please accept my sincere condolences for your family’s loss. Death is a hard reality of life no matter what the circumstances. At the age of 2, your son cannot comprehend what this means to you, to himself (beyond your short absence), nor your grandfather. He lives in a little bubble Jean Piaget termed “egocentrism.” It’s all about him.

Mommy’s Away
Use simple sentences to tell him you’ll be gone. Add whatever details will make sense to him — name the people he knows that you are going to see, whether you’ll be driving or flying, the parts of his schedule that will be covered by Daddy and others. Plan to call him every day — Skype or Face time if you can. Give enough instruction to your fill-in caregivers as they might need, but know that they’ll manage while you take care of the needs of being with your family in mourning.

Your Sadness
Children don’t like to see their all-powerful parents sad, but it happens, and can be a good lesson. Use the words “sad,” and “crying” so he can add these to his vocabulary. Give him hugs so he can learn about comfort. His emotions are still very dependent on yours, so expect that your sadness will make him sad, too. But he shouldn’t be exposed to so much of your pain that it scares him. This is why a very young child needs a not-so-grieving friend or family member to accompany him to a funeral service so that quiet narration and distraction, or removal, can be provided. We need to filter life’s experience through a lens of his understanding.

Explaining Death
Even though your grandfather lived long enough to have a great grandchild, everyone he left behind will experience a mourning period during which this passing will have to be reconciled. For your son, however, there will be little changed in his day-to-day life, nor does he have the perspective of what the duration and impact of a lifetime is. It will be up to you and others who knew your grandfather to share stories to connect your little one to this person. These are the real treasures of a person’s legacy. It’s hard to talk about death — its finality is absolute. As adults, we need some details about how it happened to be reassured of a medical explanation, which can grant us some peace of mind that everything possible had been done. It’s comforting to hear about pleasant last experiences and loving last words that acknowledge that our loved one did not suffer long or that their suffering had ended. Your son will need the simplest explanation today, but can absorb more of the news you are still grappling with as he grows up. Winston’s Wish, an organization in the United Kingdom, provides a good list of talking points you can adapt to your situation.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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