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?