How to help a young child cope with death

Q: Although my mother is only 74 years old, she is very sick and will likely not live past the summer. Mom and I have had a good relationship over the years. We love each other dearly and are as honest as two people ever could be with each other.

I will miss her when she dies but I know that I will get through it relatively well.

That is not my problem. My problem is our four-year-old son. He and Granny have some splendid times playing together. I know that they delight in each other and I am certain that he will miss her greatly when she dies. My question is what do you say to a four-year-old child, who does not have any idea of what death and dying is all about, when his grandmother dies?

A:. I admire the work that you and your mother have put into your relationship. The crux of it is of course that the two of you are brutally honest with each other. It is through that honesty swirling its way with your love and affection for each other that you have been able to create a climate in which your mother can make her way through those final steps on her long and arduous journey and deal with the uncertainty that is characteristic of death and dying.

The question for you is that if it is indeed the propensity toward honesty that has opened the door to that much support and caring for you and your mother, why wouldn’t you follow a similar path when dealing with your four-year-old son?

You are right. He will not likely understand what death and dying are about and no matter how hard you try to explain it, it is not going to make a lot of sense to him. All that he will really know after your mother dies is that one of his favourite playing partners is not going to be there to spend time with him.

Nonetheless, the more honest you are, the less you rely on euphemisms, the more likely it is that your son will come through his own grieving without any damage to his personal growth and development. In other words, when his grandmother dies it might be best just to say to him that “your grandmother just died” and then let him have his own moment of sadness.

Your son may not fully understand what death and dying means but he will understand that you are being as honest with him as you can be and that goes a long way to developing as wonderful relationship with him as you had with your mom.

Often as not, children grieve differently than adults. They seem to cycle in and out of distress relatively easily. You can expect your son to be overwhelmed with grief when he has been told that his grandmother has died. He may suddenly and unexpectantly start to play with his favourite toys and then to get distracted yet again with grief. That is his way of dealing with the sadness of losing his grandmother.

If you support and care for him as he goes through the cycles, he will do so with ease and continue his personal growth with little or no disruption. Before long, he will be having fun again and will do so without the spin into distress.

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