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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