Dear Mr. Dad: Recently, my wife’s father passed away after a very long illness. My son, who just turned six, seems to be taking it in stride, but I can tell that he really doesn’t understand what’s going on. How can I explain to him what happened to his grandfather in terms that he’ll understand? Or should I even worry about it? Is he too young to really understand the meaning of death?
A: Let me start by offering my condolences to your family.
The short answer to your question is that while your son does understand that something pretty significant has changed (after all, his grandfather isn’t there anymore), you’re right: he isn’t old enough to fully understand what death is. Even at his young age, he’s already had some experience with death—seeing dead bugs and insects, road kill animals, perhaps even the death of a pet. But he’s too young to truly grasp how permanent death is (that’s a concept that may be hard for older kids too—in the age of video games, if a character dies, all you have to do is restart the game and life goes on). So you’ll need to do some age-appropriate explaining.
At six, how quickly and fully your son understands will largely be a function of how mature he is. But there are several important ground rules. First, be prepared to answer questions—you may get a whole slew of them all at once, you may get the same one over and over, or some combination of the two. For that reason, be sure to make it clear to your son that it’s okay to ask as many questions as he has, as often as he wants to ask them. Keep in mind that for at least another few years, your child will be processing just about everything that happens to him through the “how is this going to affect ME?” filter. He may not be asking the question, but he’s definitely thinking about whether—and when—the same thing will happen to him (even if he’s not quite sure what that means).
Second, explain what death is, but be careful. Telling him that grandpa was very sick and that his body stopped working is a good place to start. But stay far, far away from euphemisms like “grandpa fell asleep,” or “he went away,” or “we lost grandpa.” Most of us—adults included—don’t really like talking about death, so we come up with all sorts of ways to avoid talking about what actually happened. But if you don’t give clear, simple explanations, your son’s imagination will kick in and you could end up with a child who’s petrified of falling asleep, having people go away for a while, or of losing anything (including himself). Again, be prepared to answer his questions again and again.
Third, if your child doesn’t ask many questions, encourage him. Ask him whether he misses grandpa—and let him know that you do too. If you think he’s having trouble coming to terms with the death, ask him to draw a picture of a happy memory he has of his grandfather. That can help him deal with the loss in his own way, plus it can start the important process of keeping his grandfather’s memory alive.
Finally, don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers to his questions. Give him as much information as you can without making stuff up. And let him know that you’ll find out whatever it is you don’t know and get back to him.