My daughter, granddaughter, and I had cruised the aisles of a local grocery store called Fusion on Sunday morning and were walking back to Jessica’s flat in Mid-Levels, Hong Kong. My granddaughter was doing what most two-year-old children do: insisting on climbing stairs and riding the escalator by herself, insisting on pushing the grocery cart by herself, insisting on walking the sideway.
Jessica reminded her daughter that there are times when it’s important to hold Mama’s hand. Then my daughter’s cell phone rang, and we stopped so she could answer her brother’s call. Their father had died, he said. It was expected news, given my ex-husband’s terminal illness, yet also surprising.
An abstract future had become present reality.
While my children talked, I watched my granddaughter. She stared into a store front window, chattered, and explored the sidewalk. In the street, taxis whizzed by. Then my granddaughter glanced at her mother, giggled, and took off running down the narrow sidewalk.
With Grandma in hot pursuit.
“Many adults think that because very young children are not completely aware of what is going on around them, they are not impacted by death,” states Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. “We must dispel this myth.”
Toddlers need us to teach them that death is a natural part of life, Wolfelt says. First, offer them comfort and care. Model your own grief; use simple, concrete language; and keep change to a minimum. Allow them to participate in the funeral or service. And in the years to come, help them remember.
What does one say to a toddler who knows someone is missing? Wolfelt recommends that we use the word “dead,” and explain, “he can never come back.” He advises against words like “bye-bye” or “gone” or “sleeping,” which confuse the issue. “…dead means the body stops working. The person can’t walk or talk anymore, can’t breathe and can’t eat.” These are terms children—and adults for that matter—can understand. Wolfelt also cautions that most of what young children pick up is conveyed nonverbally.
No doubt my granddaughter had noticed her mother’s distraction. Perhaps that’s why she took off: to regain Mama’s attention.
I raced down the sidewalk, my daughter right behind me, and grabbed my granddaughter’s hand. “No,” she cried and turned to face her mother. “Mama,” she said, reaching her free hand toward my daughter.
She wanted Mama to hold her hand.
That night, after my granddaughter went to bed, Jessica and I chatted. Again today, we climbed The Peak and took in the views. Both of us sensed the timing of my visit had been fortuitous.
I was there to hold my daughter’s hand.
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Such a wonderful post!
Thank you, Lydia! I’m glad you enjoyed it. -C.D.
This problem some have with death and project onto their children is disturbing. My sister-in-law refused to discuss it with her 3-y/o daughter when her grandfather died. So my niece, as a result of other mother inflicted protections is a hyper-sensitive,anxious teenager. Sad. I am hoping she outgrows most of it.
I am sad about your niece’s experience – and so many others who live in silence. May we tell ourselves the truth and model for others. Thank you for your comment. -C.D.
Beautiful post…beautiful God who knows and cares!
Your daughter is so lucky to have you. 🌻
Thank you for saying so. Like all children, she is a blessing.
Beautiful, Carole. Your conclusion statement was perfect. The behavior of your toddler granddaughter sounds very familiar–we have a granddaughter of the same age and preference. “Let me do it!” she often cries. What a profound example of God’s timing that you should be there in China just when your daughter needed you. He IS amazing!
Thank you, Nancy. My daughter and I had the same sense: that the timing of my visit was meant to be.
With all due respect to Wolfelt, I believe the explanation he recommends is woefully incomplete. To tell a child that someone will never come back, and to stop there, leaves out what’s most important – that while they won’t come back, we can go to where they are, which is a beautiful place where we’ll be together forever. That’s the Christian perspective, anyway, and I believe it with all my heart. I don’t know how nonbelievers face life without hope.
Agreed. Thank you for your comment. -C.D.
Death is a natural part of life.so true even tho it hurts.