Munchkin was not yet 4 when my father died. J and I knew that having her living in the same house where my father was in his last days was going to be difficult, confusing, and heartbreaking for her. But, we saw no other choice. Like many situations, there were just no good solutions.
In the days leading up to his death we talked with her a lot about Granddaddy going to heaven. We tried our best to help a 3.5 year old understand the permanency of death and what was going to happen. We didn’t believe in telling her half truths about what was going to happen. She was going to see the full depths of my grief in the days, weeks, months to come and so we needed to try to prepare her for all that would entail.
Of course, initially we saw actions that we simply expected to see. She acted out. She regressed in her potty training. She needed her Mommy and Daddy even more. When my Dad passed, she parroted what we had told her about death. We knew she understood pieces of it, but had many long conversations between ourselves about how much she was understanding and how she might really be dealing with it. But, overall she seemed to do really well. She liked to talk about Granddaddy and hear stories. She would hug me and tell me she knew I missed him a lot. She would also remind me that he was looking down on us. We’ve bee in that pattern for the year and a half since my Dad passed.
Then, last night happened.
It was a regular, rambunctious bedtime. We did teeth, potty and stories. Up highs, down lows, in the middles, hugs, kisses and tickles. J and I shut the light off and walked out. About 15 minutes later she came out of her room and sought me out with just the biggest tears rolling down her little face. She said,
“Mama, I miss Granddaddy. I can’t remember him. I can’t remember his face. Our family is not the same anymore, is it Mama? Granddaddy really isn’t coming back, is he?”
She worked herself up to the point where she was sobbing and having trouble breathing. It broke my heart into a million pieces. Of course, I wondered where this was coming from. We are a year and a half from his passing.
Naturally, when I do not understand I head to the literature. I spent time this morning reading about preschoolers and grief. According to the article I found on helping children through grief from the National Association of School Psychologists, “Young children may deny death as a formal event and may see death as reversible. They may interpret death as a separation, not a permanent condition.” It hit me at that moment. Her little mind was just now comprehending that Granddaddy was never coming back.
They gave some very important advice that we will take to heart and help our Munchkin as she is just now really taking in the events of the last year and a half. First, the article notes that young children do not grieve in orderly and predictable ways. This really explained the seemingly delayed response to Dad’s death. As an adult I quickly understood the reality of death. I don’t know why it never dawned on me that it would take her longer to process the reality of loss. The article also suggests to allow Munchkin to teach us about her grief experience. Allow her to tell her story and for us to be listeners. This morning she told me she wanted to make a special frame for her favorite picture of her and my Dad. Tonight we went to Michaels and I let her pick out whatever she wanted for this special project. While we worked on the project she told me her favorite things about Dad. She remembers a lot more than I thought she would.
I was 16 before I lost someone close to me. J was in his 30’s. Munchkin lived in a home where she experienced death first hand. One day Granddaddy was in his room and the next day he was not. Now that she is processing his death at a different level we begin a whole new phase of the grief process.
What happened last night was a shock to us all. Mom was upset. J was not only upset about Abigail, but also concerned with how it was affecting me. We’ve entered into a new phase of handling grief. The literature notes the importance of allowing Munchkin to talk to us, being good listeners, and being as open and honest as we can about death.