Q: My father died recently and I've been dealing with it okay, but I'm not sure what to do concerning my 21-month-old daughter. When we go to my parents’ house she asks for Pop-Pop and we tell her he's not home. I can't keep doing this. I don't want her to just forget him, but how can you explain that someone has died to a baby?
A: I am very sorry for your loss. This must be a very difficult time as you need to take care of yourself and cope with your own feelings, and at the same time try and make sense of all this for your young child.
Helping your child understand what has happened to Pop-Pop is indeed a challenge, as 20-month-olds don’t understand death, or even the idea that they will never see somebody again. At the same time, children are very tuned in to the feelings of the important adults in their lives, so it is likely that your child senses your sadness and understands that there is something more going on than just Pop-Pop not being home.
The key is to respond in a way that she can understand at her age. A 21-month-old is not able yet to understand the “why” of things, so explaining what death is would be confusing to her, and would likely cause more anxiety. What’s most important for your daughter at this time is to address her feelings. Pop-Pop isn’t here. I miss him too.
It is not until children are between 2 1/2 and 3 that they are able to understand how things are logically connected. This is the time when your daughter will likely start to ask questions about what happened to her grandfather. Linda Goldman, a Washington, DC-based grief therapist and educator, suggests that at this time, you explain that Pop-Pop is not coming back. If the child asks why, you can then explain that he died, and if she asks further, you can tell her that this means that his body stopped working, which happens when people are very old or sick and doctors and nurses can’t make their bodies work anymore. You can tell her that Pop-Pop cannot do things like eat or go to work anymore. This gives her a context she can relate to.
If she asks if Pop-Pop will ever come back, you should tell her the truth—that he won’t. If your child asks if you or she or others that she loves will die, you can explain that your bodies are healthy and strong so you are not going to die now. Goldman’s book, Life and Loss: A guide to help grieving children, offers a variety of techniques for parents to respond to the myriad of questions, such as these, that their children may pose.
The key is to read your child’s cues and follow her lead. Answer her questions based on what you think she can understand at that time. And keep your answers brief. A pitfall many of us make as parents is giving more information than our children can make sense of. You can invite your child to ask more questions if she wants to know more.
Goldman also suggests sharing photos, telling stories, and drawing pictures of the person they are missing. Have your daughter do something in your father’s memory. Send off a balloon that says, I love you. One child planted a rose bush because her grandfather loved flowers. Reading books about loss is also very useful for helping children cope with their grief. The following are some good books to read with young children:
When a Pet Dies by Mr. Rogers
About Dying by Sarah Bonnet Stein
When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny Brown — a book for preschoolers that addresses the many questions children might ask over the years.
The fact that you are asking this question means you are thinking about your child’s needs, which is the first step in helping her through this process.