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What to Tell 3 Year Old about
Dying Grandfather

QUESTION: My father-in-law is dying of a liver disease. What should I tell my three year old? He and his grandfather are very close, and this disease took a dramatic turn very quickly. He went from seeing a happy vibrant man, to seeing a little old man laying in a hospital bed, with tubes in him, talking nonsense. We aren't religious, so there haven't been any stories about heaven to fall back on. Fortunately, I haven't had anyone close to me die before, so I am absolutely ignorant of anything to say.

Your son is fortunate to have known his grandfather and enjoyed him while he was still a vibrant figure in his life. It is positive that your son is seeing his grandfather change, however dramatically, for it will prepare him for his death. A fragile, bedridden grandfather is a thankful transition for your son's adjustment. Your son's experience of his grandpa's vibrancy to complete absence (without any in-between transition) would have created an even greater change to assimilate.

Naturally, it is important to monitor your son's reaction to seeing his grandfather's process of dying. Support him by talking about what is happening. If he does not want to see grandpa in the hospital, do not force him, but do encourage a brief visit, if he is interested. Even a visit to the hospital, gives him some place and time to process the fact that grandpa will no longer be with him in his daily life. Funerals, too, provide a ritual for sharing and easing the pain of loss. Including children in memorial rituals in an appropriate way allows them to share their grief instead of becoming confused by it.

Many books on the market attempt to help children process the concept of death by putting it into the context of nature and the natural beginnings and endings of all living things, including fish, dogs and grandparents. One such resource is "Lifetimes" (Bantam Books) by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. Reading material aimed at this age will give your child and yourself a reference point to talk about grandfather's dying. Answer his questions as best you can, and do not be afraid to tell him if you do not know the answer. Seek to be emotionally reassuring to him, but truthful.

Though you do not follow a particular religious path does not mean you do not have your own brand of spirituality. You will find yourself developing a philosophy for handling loss in the family. If this has not happened for you previously, then you too, will be experiencing this process for the first time. You may find that other, less intense losses, such as the death of a pet, may come to mind to help you share a context of loss with your son. Whatever experiences you and your husband bring to this event should serve to guide you towards helping your son retain the value of his relationship with his grandfather throughout his lifetime.

Remembering the good times with his grandfather may continue throughout the weeks, months and year ahead. And his special relationship with his grandfather will likely become a positive memory which will guide his behavior towards his own grandchildren, surfacing at the appropriate moments in his development. Your job is to support the natural process as it unfolds. And within this process, you will develop a familial context for death and loss. Some families make collages of the person who died, to honor his memory. Memorial services which include retelling the family's best stories about the deceased is another common ritual.

Part of the task of parenthood is to integrate that which is unknown. All families struggle with the process of explaining death, for it is after all a natural part of the family life cycle. Your father-in-law's death will stimulate your family's handling of the spiritual in a way that is unique and universal at the same time. Your son will no doubt benefit from your obvious sensitivity to the need to address rather than attempt to sidestep this very important transition in the family.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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