Explaining Death to a 4 Year Old

May 13, 2016

I must admit, as I look around me, I know I am very fortunate that many of my family members are still around. They have been able to watch me grow into a mature (or sometimes not so mature) mother and watch my children grow.

 

A death in the family in June 2015, just three days before my birthday made me reflect on a few things. It was my grandfather’s funeral. He was eighty eight. He had a full life and had travelled the world with my nan by his side. He had been poorly for many years on and off, so his death was not a surprise; but it doesn’t make it any easier when the time actually comes. 

 

I speak in front of large audiences within my work and although I get slightly nervous, I thrive from the energy and experience it brings. When it came to discussing my Grandad's funeral, the family were discussing who would speak. My uncle said he would, my aunt read a poem an I put my hand up to speak at the funeral on behalf of the eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. It was an important reasonability I had bestowed upon myself but it was the right thing to do. However, it was equally one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had the largest lump in my throat as I spoke every sentence. I do hope I made him proud.

 

My Grandad had a real soft spot for my four-year-old son. It could have been the simplicity of man and boy, despite how old fashioned that statement may sound. I know how fortunate I am that my children have great grandparents in their lives. So when the time came to say goodbye, my son and I had gone to see Grandad in hospital just a few days before he closed his eyes for the last time. I wonder how much memory my son will have of that time. Now, I don’t want this to seem like a sad, downbeat blog as it’s not. Ever since my Grandad died, it seems to be all my son still talks about. In fact, we are now starting to see the funny side of this situation. 

 

So, it started when every time we visit our local supermarket. New, one and two bedroom apartments next to the car park are being built. As we pull up to the supermarket, my son would say "Oh look, that’s where Grandad Ted is". I say a slightly awkward "oh yes. It does look like the hospital doesn’t it. "Can we go and see him?” shoots the reply. “Oh maybe not today darling. Let’s go and look at the magazines in the shop”. Phew. I have managed to distract his attention.

 

At a recent birthday gathering at home, we mentioned who was coming over as we busily put up some party banners around the room. My son asked “Is Grandad Ted coming?”. My six-year daughter answered for him “No silly. Grandad Ted is dead.” My son looked confused. “Dead?...so is he not coming to the party?”. I intervened the conversation and softly let my son know that, unfortunately, Grandad will not be joining us. I could see his little mind wandering and he then asked a very simple question “how did he die?”. I told him that Grandad Ted was very old and very poorly. The doctors tried but sadly, they couldn’t make him better. This seemed to hold off the questions for a short while. Until it started again the following week. "Is Grandad Ted coming over?” My daughter promptly told him that he had died and he was in heaven. This then now raises more questions of ‘how do you get to heaven?”. I told him the angels take you. But on reflection, I am not sure that was the right answer. Perhaps it just made him more confused.

 

This also made me ponder one question. If children ask you about what happened to someone who has died, surely the best response is just to be honest. If I try and soften the truth, like saying "Grandad went to sleep" or "Grandad is with the angels", my son will just continue to wonder when a) Grandad will wake up or b) when the angels will bring him home. From a psychological perspective, I am now thinking that we wouldn't want our little cherubs to think that when they go to sleep, they might not wake up. I had not really thought about this properly until I wrote this blog.

 

Just as I thought the conversation was dying off (excuse the pun), my son talked about whether we would go skiing again this year. When I said yes, my son replied “Yay. I love skiing. Is Grandad Ted coming?...”

 

In an odd way, I love that my son just keeps talking about Grandad Ted and perhaps he is just keeping his memory alive for me. Either way, I hope my son keeps the memories he is holding close in his heart for as long as possible.

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