Last month, my father died suddenly. And while attempting to grasp this difficult reality, my darkest thoughts went to how my kids would handle the death of their Nonno. My father was a family man and valued his time with his grandchildren very much. Even in his fragile condition, Nonno always got on the floor and played with my boys. How do I begin to explain death to young children of 4 and 2 years old?
Luckily, we had help. A family member of ours is a grievance counsellor who specializes in children and she was instrumental in guiding us. While our instincts are to protect our kids from any kind of pain, sheltering them from grief or not giving them the chance to say goodbye to a loved one, can do more harm than you’d expect. Euphemisms like “He’s sleeping” “He passed away” or “He’s in heaven” are too abstract and confusing for small children. We instead used statements like “Nonno died. He was very sick and his body stopped working. His eyes will not open and his mouth will not speak anymore.” We also explained that many of our family members will be sad and will cry.
While seemingly harsh and direct, these words were very easy to process and helped my kids come to terms with a difficult yet normal part of life. In fact, it also helped me to appreciate the simplicity of death and the necessary process of grief. My two-year-old asked if Nonno’s cheeks were working and would occasionally repeat “Nonno died and his cheeks don’t work”. He also took it upon himself to be in charge of hugs and kisses when my mom looked sad. He took his job very seriously and checked-in on his grandmother often.
My four-year-old surprised me at every turn during this time. He had moments of sadness, moments of withdrawal into play, and then moments of incredible clarity. He wanted a photo of his Nonno in his bedroom so that he would always remember his face. He was sad Nonno wouldn’t be around for his upcoming birthday. And one night, completely out of nowhere, he reached out to comfort me in a way nobody has been able to: “Daddy, it’s ok to have the feelings that you have. All feelings are ok. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be mad. And it’s ok to be happy”. I could hear my father’s whispers infused into my son’s words. I’ve been so focused on my kids, my siblings, and my mother that I wasn’t allowing myself to grieve.
So I did, together with my son.
In the days that followed, my kids had a chance to say goodbye to their Nonno, to touch his still body, and to kiss his cool forehead. They drew pictures for him, placed flowers next to him, and told him how much they loved him. They traced out their extended arms and hands on pieces of cloth, decorated their “hugs” with markers, and wrapped them around my father’s waist. They surrounded his body with their love and this made them happy. My dad would have loved every minute of this and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful tribute and celebration of love.
For help with your grieving kids or more information, check out kidsgrief.ca.
As appeared in the Frankly Fatherhood column of the November 2018 issue of Mom & Caregiver Magazine