Explaining a Death in the Family…to a Child
Joe DeProspero has two sons, a wife, and is complimentary birth control for anyone who sits near him in a restaurant. His writing has been described as “outrageous,” “painfully real,” and “downright humiliating.” He talks about the highs and unsettling lows of parenthood while always being entertaining and engaging in the process. He has written the fiction book “The Boy in the Wrinkled Shirt” and is working on releasing a parenting humor book. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons and can be emailed at email@example.com or followed on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.
It’s something I never imagined I’d have to do while my children were so young. In most cases, it’s a role we’re thrust into without so much as a day or two to Google some helpful tips to prepare for it. But on April 14, 2012, my whole world changed, and I was faced with an insurmountable task: dealing with an unthinkable loss while simultaneously teaching my oldest son what death means on a level he might understand.
My 83-year-old Grandma Helen called me that Saturday afternoon at about 1:00, concerned that my mother (who lived alone) wasn’t answering her phone. This was not like my mother, who called my grandmother every single morning religiously. She wasn’t answering my calls either. About an hour later, I stopped by her place which was only 15 minutes away. And I found her on the floor. She was dead at age 59. And just like that, life as I knew it was dramatically changed forever. I was then tasked with breaking the news to my grandmother, who in turn suffered a severe stroke and also died two days later (yes, really). I was crushed. But feeling sorry for myself could only last so long; my son Antonio’s 3rd birthday party was the following weekend, and I now had two gaping holes in the family to explain to him. We would end up holding a double funeral for them the day before the party. But how was I going to explain all of this to a child whose beloved grandmother AND great grandmother suddenly vanished without saying goodbye?
My immediate reaction was to avoid any mention of “Grandma Linda” or “Nana Helen.” I had no idea how to approach their deaths with my one son who was old enough to ask about them (my younger son was 10 months old at the time). But neither my wife nor I wanted him to wonder why they hadn’t bothered to show up to his birthday party. My wife, Sonia, did her best to convey the losses in a way his young mind could comprehend. So she pulled him aside one night that week.
“Honey, Grandma went to heaven. She’s high up in the sky now and is always watching, but you just won’t be able to see her anymore.”
I’m paraphrasing because I wasn’t present for the conversation, but that’s basically how it went. A bit of a high concept for a toddler, but we were trying. And it was obvious that he didn’t understand a word of it. He simply smiled and continued mashing the buttons on his Buzz Lightyear. But while he didn’t understand, as days went by, he could clearly tell that something had gone awry. If we brought up Grandma, he ignored us. It got to the point where he wouldn’t even say her name, purposely avoiding having to bring her up, much like I did at first. Then, one day, in my car on the way to drop him off at day camp, he asked the question I’d been dreading for weeks.
“Daddy, is Grandma ever coming back?”
I froze for about eight seconds. It was like being on a job interview where you’re asked the one question you weren’t prepared for. And as the seconds ticked by, it became clearer that the truth was my only option.
“No. Honey, I’m sorry. She’s not. But she loves you and she’ll always be watching. And hey, remember that pillow fight we had with her? Wasn’t that fun?”
I was nervous, so I reached for a distraction. He nodded solemnly. But over the following weeks and months, I realized I had two jobs when it came to the death of my mother: Don’t fall apart and don’t let mentions of her yield anything but a smile.
So far, I think my wife and I have been fairly successful. We started by showing my son video footage of the aforementioned pillow fight I’d captured on my iPhone, then with watching our wedding video and asking him to point Grandma out. Then, after attending a birthday party, my wife accidentally let Antonio’s helium balloon slip out of the car and into the sky. Naturally, Antonio was not pleased. But he was certainly intrigued when we determined that the balloon wasn’t lost at all, but it was merely “sent up to Grandma.” To this day, he associates balloons (one of his favorite things) with my mother. And he smiles.
In recent months, instead of asking if Grandma is coming back, he instead asks questions about heaven.
How did she get all the way up there?
Where does she sleep?
Does she still have my balloon?
Frankly, the questions break my heart. But if he never asked at all, I think it’d be worse. So I answer him as cheerfully and imaginatively as possible.
She has special flying abilities that take her up, up, up into the sky, and she uses a cloud as a pillow. And of course she still has your balloons. She always will.
In a way, I feel like I’m writing a fairytale on the fly. This magical lady who flies with the birds and sleeps above the raindrops. Sometimes I even get caught up in the fantasy of it all, detaching myself from reality for a moment. I suppose I do it for me as much as I do it for him. I don’t want her to fade into a memory for either of us.
So if you’ve recently found yourself in this unenviable position, know that you’re not alone. And also, don’t be afraid to tell your children the truth. Or as much of the truth that you determine they can handle. Ignoring my mother’s memory around my son was not the solution to my grief or to his understanding of this dreadful situation. Honoring her memory and reminding my son of how wonderful his grandmother was (and magically continues to be) is a step in the right direction. Because while I will always be saddened by any mention of her, my children deserve to know how much she loved them. And she deserves it, too.
I truly hope that you either found solace in reading this or will think back on it if you ever need to explain the unimaginable to your children. In closing, here’s a picture of the inside cover of Green Eggs and Ham, as inscribed by my mother to my son. I always point it out when I read it to him.
Feel free to share your stories by adding a comment below.
* If you prefer my humor-based posts, forgive me for the seriousness of this one, as I felt it was a story that needed to be told.
Read more about how to talk to your kids about death and tragedy:
- 5 Real-World Issues That Worry Young Kids
- How To Talk to Your Kids: An Age-by-Age Guide
- Saying Goodbye: Talking to Kids About Death
Tags: buzz lightyear, death, death of a parent, explaining death, grandparents, green eggs and ham, heaven, joe deprospero, parenting, tragedy | Categories: Fearless Feisty Mama, Joe DeProspero, Losing a Parent, Mom Situations, Mom Tricks and Tips, Must Read