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.
ANSWER: 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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