How do I tell them that grandpa died? How do I tell my children that they will never see him again? That he will no longer visit us every Sunday? How do I explain that he will no longer play with them, hold them in his arms, travel with us, and give them that big beautiful smile? What are the right words to explain death to a 2 and a 3-year-old? How do I explain something that I myself can’t understand and can’t accept? All of these questions kept popping up as I learned last Friday (June 1, 2018) that my father-in-law passed away during his sleep just a couple months after discovering he had stage 4 cancer in different parts of his body.
The time arrived during a FaceTime call with my husband and mother-in-law that Friday night. Sophia asked “Where is Vovo Fred (vovo means grandpa in Portuguese and that is how they call him)?”. They didn’t have an answer as they were still figuring that out for themselves. I jumped in and said that Fred went to heaven.
After the call ended, that was just the beginning of a sweet conversation.
Me: “Vovo Fred is in heaven, now. He is all the way in the sky with the stars and the moon.
Sophia: “He is in heaven just like Paco?” (Paco was our beautiful, flufy neighbor’s that died a few years ago)
Me: “Yes! That is right!”
Sophia: Now he can pet Paco and run with him in Heaven.” She answered with the innocence and the simplicity that just a 3-year-old can.
My son doesn’t seen to understand what is going on but my daughter keeps coming up with different questions about grandpa. She was curious to know where Vovo Fred is going to sleep now that he is in heaven. On the floor or in a bed? In a star or on the moon? The other night she asked if he needs to brush his teeth in heaven. I said no and that was the end of the conversation. I am sure the questions will keep coming though and I will embrace them instead of avoiding or fearing them.
I learned that children see death very differently from most of us adults. Somehow for them it is not associated with sadness. Before learning that, I was avoiding to cry in front of my kids. It has been just two days since Fred died and slowly I am allowing myself to cry and to express my feelings, sadness and disappointment in front of them. I told my children that I am sad because I will miss their grandpa. I also told them that we can still see him in pictures and in our memories. That will be different from what we have been used to and I am not sure they understand it. I hope they learn, though, that it is okay to fully express our feelings, and, especially, that we can still be considered strong people even when we cry.
Coming next, I am putting an album together with pictures of their grandpa so they can look at it and always remember Fred’s face and the memories we created together. My husband and I also agreed to keep his memory alive by telling our children stories about their grandpa and who he was for us. I want them to learn how Fred expressed his love with acts of service, how he helped us put their cribs together, hang the paintings on the walls, secure the furniture on the walls to keep them safe. Fred was our Tinker and just like Tinker Bell he could fix all things he put his hands on.
I guess from now on we will also be looking at the sky more often. We never know when we can spot Fred playing with the neighbor’s cat, Paco, jumping from star to star, or taking a rest on the moon. Fred was actually a dog lover but who knows how much he can change now that he is in heaven.
Sending my love to all the mothers who have been through the experience of communicating the death of a loved one to their children. Please, receive my virtual hug and love. Feel free to share your experiences. They sure will help other mothers that are going through the same experience. For the ones that will need to communicate it someday, remember that we can be strong and cry at the same time. We can tell me them from our hearts, with love, honesty and courage to express our true feelings.
Good resources I recommend to work with children: