Preschoolers: Sickness & Death

Young children do well when sickness and death are explained with some detail. They can handle relating to a sick and dying person when truth is explained and illustrated. They are naturally curious and seek information to satisfy their curiosities. They are thirsty for words and sentences for what they are experiencing.

Katie’s parents explained that Grandma Angie at age 93 would probably not live many more days. On her birth Grandma was in the hospital but Katie (“Three and one-half,” as Katie would respond emphatically when asked her age) wanted to see her.  Jenny explained in detail Grandma Angie’s sickness and what her daughter might see in the hospital and in Angie’s room. Katie wanted to go and to  take some of her beautiful rocks to show her grandma.  Angie smiled,  commented on the smooth rock saying, “If you lick the rock its special colors brighten.” She found the energy to lift and licked the rock showing a bright-eyed Katie the brightening colors. Ninety years separated them but could not diminish their shared curiosities.

Grandma Angie was moved to a hospice. After visiting,  Katie was fascinated that she could not longer feed herself asking Jenny over and over to tell the story why and what happened in her body and who took care of her.

The morning Grandma Angie died Jenny and Todd told the details of her death to Katie. They had been there when she stopped breathing and her body stopped moving. They invited Katie to go to the hospice to see Grandma Angie’s body and to say goodbye to her. Katie wanted to take one of her special rocks. On the way to the hospice Katie said, “Tell me the story again.” So Todd and Jenny repeated the account of her death.

When they arrived at the hospice Jenny and Todd explained in detail what Katie might see inside including their description of the deceased grandmother’s body in the bed. Katie’s natural curiosity pulled her to experience all aspects of entering the room, standing on a chair beside Angie’s bed, crawling off the bed to touch her face and then kiss her grandmother. From a pocket she brought out her special rock, licked it saying, “Now in heaven you can see ALL of the bright colors God made in rocks.”

At breakfast the next morning Katie said, “Tell me about Grandma Angie dying again.” So Jenny and Todd patiently repeated the story. Afterwards Katie said, “Well Grandma Angie is dead but I still love her and she loves me.”

Remember young children learn by repetition. Repeat your explanations and stories. Katie asked to hear the stories again, but even if your preschooler does not ask, repeat the stories to them. They are taking in the details, explanations, and satisfying their curiosities.

Repeating the stories and explanations means your child is learning the language and vocabulary necessary for his/her personal life narrative.

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Kids Deserve the TRUTH

Jamie’s father found him asleep in the canopy swing on the front porch of his grandparents’ home.  In the early evening  four year old Jamie had escaped his locked bedroom by climbing out the unlocked window. He escaped to the grandparents’ house on the flag lot behind his house. He obviously ran away from his home to the front door of the grandparents who had always welcomed him. Finding that familiar front door locked, he fell asleep on the familiar and comfortable swing.

The fear of discovering their 4-year-old absence and escape  from his locked bedroom and his earlier disturbing behaviors pressured Jamie’s parents into seeking professional help.

In my office Liza and Tom’s voices quivered with distress describing the progressingly bizarre and frightening behaviors their son. Hitting, spitting, screaming, bitting and running away had unexpectedly and gradualy become this precocious child’s behavior. His moods had changed from vivacious and happy to sour, angry, sullen, and surly.  A week ago at his birthday party he blew out the four candles, smashed his fists into the chocolate cake screaming, “I want Nana and Papa; I want Nana and Papa here.”

As they described his extraordinary shift in behaviors and mood,  they began to theorize that these changes happened after the two car crash that killed  Liza’s parents a month ago. On the final day of their drive home from an extended vacation, a drunk driver crossed the center lane hitting them head on. They died instantly.

Lise and Tom were devasted.  Their three children anticipated celebrating the homecoming of  their only living grandparents and to the  easy access to their convenient house behind.

Tom and Liza quickly told the truth of the car crash and deaths to twelve year old, Mike, and nine year old, Rachel, but decided Jamie was too young for the truth. Everyone agreed to keep the secret.   Stoically Tom told Jamie that Papa and Nana had decided not to come back to live in their house and they had decided to take a longer vacation.

Jamie seemed naturally disappointed but gradually his behaviors and moods deteriorated. For his safety and their peace of mind, they locked his bedroom door at bedtime.

After 40 years of relating to families after a death and especially the last 16 professionally at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families, I am convinced children of all ages deserve the truth.  Even young childre (infants, too) do better when truth is kindly and compassionately explained to them. The more obscure, abstract words need to be explained with concrete  illustrations and objects.

Children are never to young for the truth.

Kids like Jamie have truth antennas scanning their environments.  They have an uncanny means of sensing they are missing out on something important and big. Jamie felt the emotional tension in his parents and siblings as they held in the truth around the dinner table or while traveling in the car.  The family stopped talking about the grandparents out of anxiety of revealing the terrible truth to Jamie.

I suggested to Tom and Liza that Jamie would do better and that his behavior and moods would probably change if they were willing to give him the truth and if they would help give him some memorial rituals.  Since Jamie had never experienced anything dead except flies and bugs, it was important to introduce him to the language of death. To help him conceptualize the words died and dead, I suggested they find a dead animal. After giving him a vocabulary and explanations for death by using the dead animal, they would introduce him to the fact his grandparents died in a car crash.

From their home they called friends and family members explaining their search for a dead animal.  Lisa’s sister called back after hearing the message and explained they had a dead bird that had crashed into their picture window in the freezer because they thought it was rare but Jamie’s situation took precedence.

Over a two day span Tom, Liza, Mike and Rachael introduced Jamie to the truth about the dead bird and the dead grandparents. They planned ceremonies to commemerate the life of the bird with a burial and rituals to celebrate the grandparents’ lives includin their first vist to their graves and their home on the flag lot. The family cried and laughed, remembered and ate the grandparents’ favorite foods. They slept two nights in the grandparents’ bedroom.

As predicted Jamie’s behaviors and moods changed dramatically because the truth set him free to be himself again to grieve and to mourn within his family.

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