Finding the right words

May 17, 2011 by Carrie Cherry
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Julia and Mike, June 2008

I waited two days after my husband died to tell our daughter. I didn’t want anyone around to hear me as I struggled to find the words to tell a 3-year-old her dad wouldn’t be coming home. Ever.

How could she possibly understand death? Illness? Finality? Or the concept of heaven? She was so little. She still called him dada.

We were so careful never to use the word cancer around her. We didn’t want that word to be part of a toddler’s vocabulary. We never told her he was sick. We didn’t want her to have worry in her heart.

That day, what came out was something like this:

Sweetie, I have to tell you something. Dada isn’t coming home. He’s in heaven now. We won’t get to see him anymore, but we can keep him in our heart, and we still love him and he loved us very much. We’re going to be sad for a while, but we’re going to be OK. You and I are going to be OK.

She showed the kind of concern a 3-year-old can show, and then went back to playing with her stuffed animals.

Every now and then she would ask about him. “I haven’t seen dada in a while,” she would say.

I didn’t use the words dead, or died, or dying. She doesn’t know what those words mean.

Six months later, we were putting up the Christmas tree. As we were hanging Mike’s beloved Three Stooges ornaments, she asked what happened to him. I decided it was time to get more specific.

She asked. I had to answer.

Dada was sick, sweetie. He was very, very sick. Not like the kind of sick you or I get when we have a cold or a stomachache. He was very sick and his body just stopped working. And he died. He went to heaven. He didn’t want to leave us. But he was just too sick.

And then came the questions: Why did he get sick? Why did he have to die?

And then came my answer: a big, fat “I don’t know.”

I don’t know if I handled it the right way. Maybe I should have consulted a professional. I just told her what I thought she could understand and tried to be strong for her.

Lately, she seems to fear that I’m going to leave her. I promise her that I won’t. And I pray all the time for that to be true. Yesterday, she asked me if the reason we don’t see him is because he lives in Florida and we live in West Virginia.

It’s so hard to know what’s going through her little mind. And she’s too young to express what’s she feeling about something so complex that even I can’t understand.

I worry I didn’t say the right things. I worry that maybe she didn’t get to grieve because I just wanted to assure her everything was going to be ok. I worry if 3- and 4-year-olds can even grieve. I worry that something will happen to me.

Most of all, I worry she won’t remember him.

My 4-year-old has a lot of questions. I have a lot too. How do you explain death to a child? How do you reassure her that you’re not going to leave her too? How do you describe heaven and God and an afterlife? What do you say when she wants to know why?

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8 Responses to “Finding the right words”

  1. Katy BrownNo Gravatar says:

    I love this picture of Mike. I rely on a lot of photos and a lot of memories and I talk, talk, talk about my family to make them “alive” for my girls. This is when being a writer comes in especially handy…you can bring them back in your own words. If anyone can do this, YOU CAN.

    : )

    • CarrieNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks Katy. I’ve been thinking about having Mike’s friends and family write down some stories and memories and making a book with pictures for Julia. It’s on my to-do list. One of these days…

  2. RachelNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks again for sharing your story. I don’t have any words to help the situation, but I do appreciate your willingness and honesty. I don’t know that there is a “canned” right or wrong thing to say. As moms, all we can ever say and do is what we think best for our children. And trust in God to help us along the way.

  3. CaraNo Gravatar says:

    My dad passed away suddenly when I was 6 and my brother was 4. I remember being concerned, but not sure what to think of it all. I wanted to play at his viewing, and sit with friends as his funeral, so obviously I didn’t really understand what was happening. I remember my brother being extremely upset, but I believe it’s because he saw our mom so upset.

    Grieving the loss of a parent, especially when so young, is a lifelong process. You always wonder “what if” and try to make up memories for the times they didn’t happen. I definitely agree with lots and lots of pictures and talking about Mike all the time. People still tell me “your daddy would be so proud of you” and it still makes me bawl like a baby, 20 years later! But I appreciate it, because it comes from someone who knew my father and can tell me their memories of him.

    It’s not easy, and it will never become easy, but the more you talk about what happened and tell Julia about her amazing dad, she’ll have an easier time accepting it, I think… but then again, I’m not a professional either! :)

  4. Elizabeth Damewood GaucherNo Gravatar says:

    Carrie, I’m not sure what the “professional parenting experts” say, but frankly I don’t really care. I believe one of the best things we can do for our children is, when we really don’t know, to say so.

    It takes some time, for some people a lifetime, to appreciate and accept that their parents are not all powerful and omnipotent. But one day, most of us do and it’s a new level of connection in the relationship. You gave your child a gift with your honesty rather than making up some comforting tale. I think you are a hero. Blessings to you and your family.

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