Explaining loss to preschoolers with love and honesty

Sad young boy covering his eyes

We had some sad news recently. The lovely woman who lived next door to us lost her battle with cancer.

She was one of the first (if not the first) people to welcome us to the neighborhood 13 years ago. She was also one of the first to welcome our kids to the neighborhood when we first brought them home. On Halloween, she had a special treat for our kids, and she always made time to chat with us over the fence. She was a great neighbor.

When we got the news, we had to figure out how to explain death to our three-year-olds. I knew honesty was the best policy, so without getting into too many details, we explained that we would be going to a funeral. We told the kids separately, so there would be fewer distractions and they could ask questions.

I didn’t realize how heartbreaking their reactions and questions would be.

We told our daughter first. We explained that Miss Mary got very sick, and while the doctors gave her all the medicine they could, it didn’t help and she died. Explaining the funeral was next. We would be going to church that day to say good-bye to Miss Mary. I told them they might see some grown-ups there who were sad and crying, but that’s OK. They’re just going to miss Miss Mary.

It took our daughter a few minutes to process that. She looked at me and said, “Miss Mary died? I’m sad.” She curled up in my lap for a few minutes, her grief passed and she was on her way.

Our son is a sensitive kid. Sometimes I think you can actually see the gears turning in his head. We gave him the same talk, he processed it, and went on his way. But when we got to the church, the questions started coming fast and hard. “What is, ‘died’?” “Where’s Miss Mary?” “When do we say good-bye?” “What’s that brown thing?” He was asking perfectly acceptable questions very respectfully, but it was getting to the point where I couldn’t tell if the people around us were crying because of the funeral, or because of our son’s questions.

By the way, the “brown thing” in question was the casket.

At the end of the funeral, our son really wanted to say good-bye. The funeral was closed-casket, so that made things both harder and easier all at the same time. So instead, we found the portrait that was next to the casket. I picked up my boy and said, “There’s Miss Mary’s picture. We aren’t going to see her, but this is where we can say good-bye.”

Without missing a beat, he raised his little arm, waved and said, “Good-bye,” with the adorable New Jersey accent 3-year-olds sometimes acquire.

And with that one word, he broke my heart and my eyes filled with tears.

It was the first time, as a parent, that I had to peel away a piece of my kids’ innocence. I know they don’t fully understand the concept of mortality, but I introduced it. What a rotten part of the parenting job.

I’m glad, though, that my husband and I were the ones to do it. I’d hate for them to learn that one in the School of Hard Knocks. I’m also glad that they asked as me questions as they did and that we answered them as honestly as was age appropriate.

But I think I would have preferred to explain the birds and the bees.

– Rebecca Calappi is a Publications Coordinator at Beaumont Health and adoptive parent of multiples.

1 Response to “Explaining loss to preschoolers with love and honesty”

  1. 1 Anonymous September 15, 2015 at 8:25 am

    Moving and beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Indeed,there are so many tough jobs in parenting. You did an awesome job in helping your little ones cope with their first major experience of loss. Kudos to both you and your husband.

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