When my dad died very unexpectedly on a business trip last month, the last thing on my mind was explaining the concept of death to my 3-year-old.
I just didn’t think she was old enough to understand that anything was happening.
But then a bunch of other things went wrong and I spent a lot of time crying and cursing, and before I knew it, the gals at her summer camp pulled me aside to tell me my adorable little girl had told them “Mommy’s upset!” during class that day.
I was horrified.
I had been so consumed with all of the phone calls and emails to our insurance company so my mother didn’t have to deal with the mess of trying to get my dad home (can you believe it took 16 days?!) while simultaneously dragging my child from activity to toy store to takeout restaurant, that I never even considered the poor kid was noticing my tears, listening to my phone conversations, and wondering why I was suddenly referring to ‘Gran and Grandad’s house’ as ‘Gran’s house.’
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and while I love nothing more than dwelling on my mistakes, no amount of regret on my part is going to change what happened.
Nor is it going to bring my dad back.
So rather than drowning myself in sadness and guilt, I gave myself a pep talk, dried my tears, and did my best to keep things as normal as possible for my little girl while also trying to explain what was going on. And you know what? Things started to get better after that. As it turns out, she is exactly what I need to get through this difficult time, and while I still have my sad moments, I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping it together over here.
And since I know other moms and dads out there may find themselves in a position similar to mine one day, I decided to share 9 tips to help preschoolers cope with the death of a grandparent.
What would you add to my list?
1. Decide on a final resting place
My family is not overly religious, but it didn’t take long for me to realize my 3-year-old needed to know WHERE my dad is, so, when the opportunity presented itself, my husband and I explained to her that Grandad is now watching her from heaven. I remember feeling stressed the concept would confuse her, but she was satisfied with our explanation and enjoyed practicing the word “heaven” with me a few times before running off to play with her toys. I’m sure she’ll have more questions as she gets older, but for now, knowing where Grandad is seems to be enough.
2. Get out the crayons
If my daughter was a crafty person (spoiler alert: she’s not), I would have suggested we draw a picture of what heaven looks like after our conversation. I think this would have been a great way to help her visualize where he is, and by leaving it up to her to figure out what heaven looks like, I feel like it would have made her feel more comfortable knowing he’s somewhere safe and fun. If I ever get the opportunity to do this with her (don’t hold your breath!), I’ll let you know how it goes.
3. Buy some books
I am a big fan of children’s books. I find they do a much better job of explaining things than I ever can, and they often do so in a simple, yet loving way. So I hopped onto Google and found a bunch of great age-appropriate books about death for my 3-year-old. Here are my favorites:
4. Get back into a routine
One of the hardest parts of the first few weeks after my dad died was how up-in-the-air everything was. It took 16 days to get his remains home, 21 days to get his personal belongings back, and because we’re non-traditional, we waited almost 6 weeks to host his memorial so we could celebrate his life on what would have been his 69th birthday. It was extremely stressful. But I never skipped a beat when it came to my daughter’s daily routine, and I cannot tell you how much the little things, like summer camp drop-off and pick-up, mom-and-me gymnastics classes, afternoon trips to Starbucks meant to me. And to her. It created a sense of normalcy for the 2 of us, and helped me focus on something other than being sad every day.
5. Keeps things fun
When my husband and I picked our daughter up from summer camp the morning we found out my dad had died, we came home for lunch and asked her what she wanted to do for the afternoon. And do you know what she said? She said she wanted to go on the subway so she could go to The LEGO Store. And that’s exactly what we did. In the weeks following, I did more and more of that stuff as I found it really helped the 2 of us. I liked that we were doing something TOGETHER, and whenever we reached our destination (toy store, splash pad, zoo, etc.) and my child was happily engaged in something, it gave me some guilt-free time to talk to the insurance company, answer emails from the funeral home, and check-in with my mum and sister.
6. Crank the (happy) tunes
We ALWAYS have music playing in our house, and while it sometimes felt inappropriate to be blaring Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” in the days after my dad died, I found music helped us a lot. Watching my daughter twist and shout to her favorite tunes always brought a smile to my face, and it helped keep things positive and happy for her at a time when she needed it most.
7. Organize some family fun
While it often seemed selfish to arrange a fun family day at the park, accept an invitation to a BBQ with friends, or spend an afternoon on the couch watching Disney movies while my mum and sister were by themselves grieving, I found my daughter was craving the time alone with my husband and I. Even though she’s only 3, she could sense something was wrong and needed to feel close to us without distractions and tears and tense conversations. And you know what? My husband and I needed it too.
8. Accept help from family and friends
Being a good parent is tough on a normal day, but when you’re grieving the loss of a parent, it’s even harder. But guess what? Even though you feel like you need to be the best parent in the world more than ever for fear that you, too, will die and leave your kids alone, you need time to grieve. So when your in-laws offer to take your kids for a few hours, or your BFF invites you over for a playdate, TAKE THEM UP ON THEIR OFFER. You will be a much better parent afterwards. Trust me on this one.
9. Don’t be afraid to show emotion
My mother has never been one to show emotion. Ever. It’s just not her style. And while that may work for her, it doesn’t work for me, and I have found it especially difficult to connect with my mother in the last 6 weeks as a result. I don’t know if she wants me to hug her or keep my distance, talk about my dad or avoid the topic, distract her with fun activities or sit in silence, and I’ve decided I don’t want that kind of relationship with my daughter. So I’m teaching her that it’s okay to cry when you’re sad, scream when you’re angry, and laugh until you pee when you find something funny. I think it’s a much healthier way to teach her how to cope with her own emotions, and I always feel better after a good cry, you know?