Family

Talking to Young Children about Death

My grandfather passed away a few weeks ago. He was the sort of person who wrote lists and made contingency plans. He had a system and your opinions weren’t going to change it. My grandparents came to almost every high school music concert I ever had, and I know they went to many of my siblings’ and cousins’ events. My grandpa liked to say “Well, you know what you oughta do…” whether you wanted his advice or not. He liked to write letters to his elected officials and gave away money to the ACLU pretty much every time they asked.

Dylan and Grandpa

The author and his grandfather

My grandpa passed away in hospice after being in the hospital for a week. It was a calm death, a good death. I was fortunate enough to be able to go and visit with him and be with my family the week he passed. I hadn’t planned on staying for the whole week but I ended up staying because it was too hard to leave. As a parent and a spouse, it was hard to be away. I know my spouse wanted me to do what I needed to do, but I also told my kid I would be home and then the plans changed.

After my grandpa had passed, my spouse took on the initial task of talking to Little Bear about my grandpa dying. The two of them were coloring and Rebecca explained that the reason I wasn’t home was because Grandpa Bill had died and that I had wanted to visit, say goodbye, and support my mother, grandma, and family. Little Bear had a lot of questions. I got asked the same round of questions within 15 minutes of getting home, and she’s been asking the same questions every few days or so.

“Why did Grandpa Bill die?”

When people get old, they die. Grandpa Bill’s body just got really tired.

“Why did his body get tired? How old was he?”

He was 86, which is a lot older than three.

“Am I going to die?”

Yes, but hopefully not for a really really long time after you live a full, long life.

“Are you going to die someday?”

Yeah, but I hope I’ll be really really old and you’ll be grown up.

“How are they turning Grandpa Bill’s body into ashes? Does it hurt?”

There’s a special machine that they put his body in and it turns it into ashes. Kind of like how leaves and our old food turns into compost. It doesn’t hurt Grandpa Bill, because the part that made him the person we loved isn’t in his body anymore, the part that made him funny and smart and thoughtful left.

We took Little Bear with us to the visitation and memorial service and she did great. She spent a lot of time (for a three year old at least) looking at my grandpa’s portrait and saxophone, and then she spent time bouncing around the room. In the car, she had been singing a made up song with the lyrics “Grandpa Bill’s memorial” repeated on end and we were relieved she didn’t run around singing that. She did make a “funeral book” of Grandpa Bill which she said held “all the memories of Grandpa Bill of all the still alive people.”

Here’s to my grandpa, my kid, and accepting that when you are grieving sometimes what you oughta do is eat cake and be together.

Now, if only we could get Little Bear to stop announcing that “You’re going to die one day, and Grandma is going to die, and I’m going to die, and Henri is going to die, and Oliver is going to die, and my teacher is going to die and all my preschool friends are going to die someday, but not for a long long long long time.”

FEATURE PHOTO CREDIT: DYLAN FLUNKER

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3 Comments

  1. I needed the laugh. And this was awesome. As was the picture of you as a little tyke.

    But how do you explain it when the person isn’t old? Someone I know just died at 38, 3 days before her son’s 1st birthday. The older son is my daughter’s age. Despite all my tears, all I have been able to explain is that Mommy’s friend is sick and that makes Mommy said and its okay to cry when you are sad and it so okay to tell people you love when you are sad.

    • Dylan Flunker says:

      Ugh that is heartbreaking. I think you are right about sharing when it makes you feel sad. I have appreciated seeing how other parents model handling emotions, and that strong emotions are okay to have and express. I can’t imagine trying to explain the death of a parent to a young child either.

      My thoughts are with you and your friends’ family.

      • Clare Masson says:

        Thanks Dylan. Ultimately, I totally avoided the subject of death. But, I am happy about the conversation about tears and sadness. We sang the Free to Be You and Me Song “It’s alright to cry”. My Dad would be proud that I remembered all the words from childhood.

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