Becca’s Preschool Corner
How to talk to your preschooler about death
by Rebecca Radaker
(Plain Press, September 2006) Dear Becca,
My Husband is terminally ill with cancer and not expected to live long. How can I best prepare my four your old son for his death?
Dear Grievous one,
It is best to be as honest as you can with your son without alarming him. It would be disastrous to pretend everything was all right until the end and have him go through the shock of illness and death without prior knowledge. It also would be disastrous not to allow him to be a part of the burial process because he would likely go through the trauma of wondering what happened to his father.
If your husband has reached the stage of accepting his pending death, he can be very helpful in preparing your son. The best approach is to talk openly with you son about the natural process of life and death. This means from the day we are born we are destined to die.
When we are young our bodies are growing and developing. After reaching maturity we are strong and well enough to work, get married, have children and raise them to become adults. In time our bodies grow old and wear out.
At this point you can use the analogy of a new pair of socks that are fresh and bright. As you wear them they become dingy and faded. Eventually the cloth gets thin and holes develop and they are thrown away because they are no longer useful.
Explain that when someone’s body wears out they are not thrown out in the garbage like an old pair of socks. People are special and when they die we prepare a special place for them so that we can remember how they were when they were alive. In addition, we can visit that special place any time. Be sure to call each thing by its right name, calling the special place a cemetery.
If you or your husband are up to it, you could even take your son to a funeral home and cemetery to see what they are all about. It’s similar to taking your child with you to see the dentist work on you before placing him in the chair for his first visit.
If you are too emotionally distraught to take your child to a funeral or the cemetery, perhaps a friend or relative could do it for your. The very best way for a child to cope with any traumatic situation is to face it head on especially if you know it cannot be avoided. As painful as it may be, it will hasten the healing process. Not knowing what is happening can be very frightening to a child and can leave emotional scars that may last a lifetime. Children are very resilient and can bounce back quicker than we give them credit.
Avoid telling the child that a dead person is just sleeping. This will cause him to be afraid to go to sleep at night. To tell the child Daddy has gone on a journey in which he will not return will cause the child to have feelings of abandonment and rejection. Also, he may take on feelings of guilt thinking he did something bad to cause Daddy to leave.
Telling your child that Daddy has gone to heaven to live with Jesus forever in eternal happiness with no more pain is common for people that are deeply religious. This may be more than a four-year-old child can understand. They are not able to perceive death as permanent because they relate to the cartoon characters that keep bouncing back to life.
You may ask, “What can I tell my child?” If you are a religious person you can explain that everyone must die some day and that God chooses the time for each person to come live in heaven. Tell your child that it is very important for us to continue to live here on earth until the right time that God calls for us.
When your child sees the body of his father lowered into the grave, explain that it is a resting place until God raises the body up again. This is the time to explain in terms your son can understand the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Only explain as much as he is able to understand. Encourage your son to talk and ask questions because that is the best way to deal with the situation and relieve any anxieties he is experiencing.
If your are overcome with grief, do not try to hide it from your child but explain that it is all right to feel sad and to miss Daddy while we are waiting to join God. Allowing your child to grieve is healthy. If you see excessive signs of denial, anger, depression or other negative behavior beyond a reasonable period of time, you may need to seek professional help to aid your child in the process of dealing with the loss of his father.
Editor’s Note: Becca’s Preschool Corner was a regular feature in the Plain Press in the early 1990s. This column, How to talk to your preschooler about death, first printed on April 27, 1993, is being reproduced here on the Plain Press website as part of a tribute to the author, Rebecca Radaker, who passed away on July 28th 2006.
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