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how old is old enough for a child to understand death?

April 18th, 2005, 09:10 AM
i have a 4 year old daughter who is VERY attached to her grandfather, problem is hes sick

hes got emphazema, and in order to live hes been on antibiotics and prednisone for a long time, like a year. and now aside from his lungs shutting down the antibiotics and prednisone are shutting his kidneys and liver down. this week he goes for a cat scan and will be booked for a surgery, and its been made clear to him he may not be able to survive th surgery, however even without the surgery hes been told to put his affairs in order sooner then later.

this leaves me with a multitude of problems, most of wich i can handle but I am not even sure what to tell my daughter or even prepare her for the fact that her grandpa wont be around any longer.

April 18th, 2005, 09:43 AM
I'm very sorry to hear about your father(in-law?).

My mother-in-law passed away last year when my oldest was 4 1/2. He attends Catholic school, though, and had been learning about God, Jesus and Heaven for some time prior to her passing, which was very helpful. Also, our first dog had passed away when he was 3, so death was not a new concept to him at that point. We told him that Nonna had died and gone to Heaven. He asked questions, like any 4yr old will do. He still does ask questions whenever they occur to him, and he does talk about how he misses his grandmother and our dog whenever he thinks about them. I had read that the key is to give them as much information as they need, in as much detail as is appropriate for their age, answer questions honestly, and they'll put it all together in their own time. :grouphug:

April 18th, 2005, 09:52 AM
Hi Eleni,
I`m very sorry you have to deal with this. Death of a loved one is hard at any age. The simpliest way to explain to a child at this age is that grandpa`s body has stopped working. You can equate it to a broken toy or appliance that she has seen. This isn`t exactly accurate, but its something she can understand. Answer any questions as simply and honestly as you can. Let her attend the funeral and view his body if you can, and if she wants; don`t force her. Children process understanding of death differently at different ages, she may want more details and actually 'regrieve' as she gets older.

Unfortunately my kids have had to face the death of family members several times when they were younger, so I`ve had to explain things several times at levels they could understand.

Best wishes for you getting through this tough time. :sorry:

April 18th, 2005, 09:59 AM
From what I've read and heard - although I don't have children myself - it is always best to tell children the truth but not necessarily the whole truth. She knows her grandpa is sick, so when he goes in for his surgery you just say the doctors are going to help him, maybe visit him the day before, at home, keep it happy (tough for you, I know), make him a card or a cake. I would not tell her there's a chance it could be the last time, or take her to the hospital. If he passes, then you would have to tell her, of course, that he has gone, that he loved her very much but was too sick, etc. Here in Quebec, I've noticed, there's a custom of viewing the dead as angels watching over their loved ones; she might find it comforting to hear that.

Cyberkitten can help you with this, she's a doc and has alot of experience. Sorry for your pain, hang in there.

April 18th, 2005, 10:31 AM
(((((( Eleni ))))))

It's a tough situation to be in.My daughter has been to more funerals then I can count.I agree with badger about telling the truth.This is how I explained it to my daughter when relatives/friends have passed on.I explained to her that they were very sick and they couldn't get better.And that they were going to heaven and they would watch over us.At the funerals,the coffin was always open.I left it to her if she wanted to go up or not.I never foced her.And this is something I have seen with other parents and I don't like it.When my best friends mother passed away 7 years ago,my daughter and my bestfriends son(year younger) actually hung out at the coffin and was touching her.This my daughter did on her own.She did ask why she was cold and felt hard.I think the worst funerals for her were the young ones.My cousin lost his little boy at 3.And 3 of my friends lost their little ones.

Let you daughter ask as many questions as she can.Answer them as truthfully as you can....She will understand more when she gets older.

I also like pamha's discription of the broken toy or applience.

My thoughts to you and your family.

April 18th, 2005, 12:22 PM
Eleni, I dont have any advice - I think the suggestions above are all excellent ones for handling this delicate situation.
I just wanted to say that I am very sorry about your father-in-law. This is a difficult and stressful time for your family, and I send best wishes and postive thoughts for this upcoming surgery :grouphug: .

April 18th, 2005, 12:26 PM
He actually my father, perhaps my post was worded oddly,

I was actually still quite sleepy when I posted as I was up late discussign the issue with my husband.

I think im going to take all of the suggestions, its a tough situation no mater how we look at it Ive known for a long time this was coming, hes been very ill for a long time, and it will be a releif to him to pass on, hes been in pain and uncomfortable from trouble breathing for a very long time, and he seems prepared and ready to go, i think at this point hes just prolonging things to allow everyone around him to prepare for the inevitable


April 18th, 2005, 12:56 PM
My mother in law passed away Nov. 2nd very very suddenly. My stepdaughter was 8 and very attached to her Tata (grandma). I read a thing about how to deal with kids when their is a death. Listen to their questions, you will think they are in need of a complex answer but usually its just as simple as it sounds. Answer their question and just their question. Don't go into too much detail just as much as they ask for. The priest actually said that he was happy to see all the children at the funeral and that they needed to be there and I truly believe that. Also funny thing is these kids can cry up a storm and be really depressed and then next thing you know will say "can we have Mcdonalds?'. I found this with My Stepdaughter the first day we heard she was so upset and then she started playing. Don't be alarmed. All kids deal differently, their is no wrong way.
One thing I did which I thought of my own and I think helped my SD feel as if she had that last conversation as it was a very sudden unexpected death. I had her write her TATA a letter of anything she wanted. Not to let anyone see it, put it in an envelope and allow the child to place it in the casket. I told her now you and tata have a secret and she now knows how much you loved her and certainly has taken the letter with her and read it in heaven. It made her feel that connection. She still to this day asks do you think tata still reads my letter in heaven. Oh gosh I could cry everytime. It made her feel connected in a special way. Made her feel like that special connection they had never will be lost. To this day i can walk in SD room and she will have tears in her eyes and she will tell me shes talking to tata.
Its good to be open in honest but dont give too much info. You don't want them to be scared of death but feel ok about mourning.

Eleni I also wanted to add that Im really sorry that you have to go through this. I pray for the strength for you to get through this. Don't be afraid to be sad around your children either. You should feel comfortable being sad as they should also. I pray for you and your family! God speed

April 18th, 2005, 01:17 PM
I am very sorry to hear about your father!

I am hesitant to post anything since you jumped on advice I had posted regarding another medical issue. Perhaps - as a pediatric oncologist - it is best if I leave my professional opinions at the door (er server) but I also know it is not healthy to compartimentalize our lives.

That said, I will post a fact sheet we sometimes have used at our hospital. I just wrote an article on explaining death to toddlers but it was about their own death. Unfortunately, I see very young children die -even with our most impressive and sophisticated and while I help them and their parents to prepare for it, it is never easy. I still get angry and upset!

Here is the "fact sheet":
Young Children's Understanding of Death
Joyce A. Shriner

Children of all ages are affected by a loss of a significant person in their lives. Izetta Smith from The Dougy Center has written, "We have seen that all children-as young as preschoolers, toddlers, and even infants-grieve the loss of a loved one" (1991, p. 170).

Most researchers believe that children, during the first years of life, have little or no understanding of death. Toddlers soon learn, however, that some things do not return; they are, "all-gone" (Grollman, 1967, p. 96).

Three- to five-year-olds "regard death as temporary and life-death as alternating states" (Grollman, 1967, p. 98). Cartoons on television and older children telling ghost stories help to reinforce their ideas.

Preschoolers tend to assume that they will not die. They believe that death is accidental rather than inevitable (Grollman, 1967, p. 100). Specific circumstances, such as being involved in accidents, becoming elderly, or going to the hospital are believed to cause death. These children try "to isolate those phenomena, which 'mean' or 'cause' death" (Grollman, 1967, p. 101).

After five years of age, children gradually understand "that death is final, inevitable, universal, and personal" (Grollman, 1967, p. 101).

Most ten-year-olds understand that death is an irreversible and inescapable part of life.

Explaining Death to a Child
When talking about death with a child, parents should explain that death means that life stops, the deceased cannot return, and the body is buried. They should also explain their religious beliefs concerning these matters. Anything less simple and explicit often causes confusion and misinterpretation. Covering death over with fiction or half-truths may increase children's fears in the future and lead to mistrust of family members. However, children's fears may be lessened when the death discussion is focused not on morbid details but on the beauty of life.

Possible Reactions of Children to Death
The death of a parent is a traumatic loss in a child's life. Different children cope in different ways. Possible reactions and children's statements that may or may not appear include:

Denial --"I don't believe it."

Bodily distress --"I can't breathe;" "I can't sleep."

Hostile reactions to the deceased --"Didn't he care enough for me to stay alive?"

Guilt --"She got sick because I was naughty. I killed her!"

Hostile reactions to others --"It is the doctor's fault. He didn't treat him right."

Replacement --"Uncle Ben, do you love me, really love me?"

Assumption of mannerisms of deceased --"Do I look like Mommy?"

Idealization --"How dare you say anything against Daddy! He was perfect."

Anxiety --"I feel like Mommy when she died. I have a pain in my chest."

Panic --"Who will take care of me now?" (Grollman, 1967, pp. 18-20).

If parents are concerned about how their children are reacting, they should consult a pediatrician or professional counselor.

Community Social Support
Social support of children is crucial following the death of a loved one. In coping with his or her own grief, the surviving parent may have difficulty providing emotional support and physical nurturing to his or her children when they need it most.

Many community resources are available to help families. Ministers, priests, or rabbis can help families with spiritual concerns. School guidance counselors and teachers should know of resources to help children. Support groups may also be available within schools or communities. Librarians can suggest quality books for parents to read alone or with their children. Many hospice organizations also have excellent reading materials.

Although no two individuals will have identical experiences, research provides clues to reactions that might be expected. The best advice for parents is to live with children during the good times in such a way that when difficult times come, the family will be able to withstand the upheaval.

Grollman, E. A. (Ed.). (1967). Explaining death to children. Boston: Beacon Press.

Grollman, E. A. (1990). Talking about death. Boston: Beacon Press.

Smith, I. (1991). "Preschool children 'play' out their grief," Death studies, 15: 169-176.

What I would add to that is that toddlers your daughter's age do not understand death is permanent. They regard it as reversible and temporary. Death may be confused with sleeping or the person merely being absent, with the belief the person will return. Since children are egocentric, death may be perceived as punishment for wrongdoing or caused because the child had previously wished the person dead. Sometimes, death is thought of as violent. Children also sometimes think they might catch the condition which caused the death.

Some children think dead people live somewhere else - in the sky, underground (I have heard every variation on this theme in my own pratice - like a 3 yr old who today wanted to know when she dies if she can look down and watch her mom and sister? (She I think will live a long life but any child who spends time in an oncology unit thinks about it. I myself encountered the possibilty of death at the age of 4 so I know a little bit about where these children are on a very preseonal level)

Some things you can do to help her understand death are:

- Explain to her that grandpa is sick so she is it is more traumatic when it suddenly happens.
- Tell her what to expect regarding the funeral, parents/family grieving.
- Explain to them how things might look and what might happen.
- Encourage all adults in the school to use terms "dead/death" and not phrases of "passed away", "sleeping", "resting", or "taken from us".
- Reassure your daughter regarding routines, activities, and schedules. (Children NEED routine, especially when there is chaos around them and a death in the family is chaos)
- Keep explanations short, simple, and truthful. The explanations may need to be frequently repeated.

Good luck!! I know it is not easy and will keep you in my thoughts. You also are going thru your own grief and that makes it more difficult I think. Let your daughter see your grief - it is part of life and trying to hide it is not natural and children pick up on that. They sense when there is something wrong so help them understand it.

Take care!! :grouphug:

April 18th, 2005, 02:08 PM
I don't know if this will help, but my grandfather died when I was 11. To this day I feel that he was the person that held our family together, and the only male rolemodel I had. Plus, I always felt he was the only one who understood me as a person. To this day, I morn him greatly.

When he died, my mom got a book, more for my younger sisters, that was like a childs story book talking about the dealth of a loved one. Can't remember the name, but I'm sure there are lots of books out there like that. Maybe hit the library and see what they have. I know it helped my younger sisters.