Last week, my 23 year-old nephew David died and as family was about to gather, it was important to tell my 5 year-old son what had happened, what the next few days would be like and how he should be a part of it (or not). I’m not a child psychologist, nor did I have time to grab a book and read up on how experts think death should be handled, but what we did seemed to work pretty well.
In a moment when things were less rambunctious than usual, I said to my son, “I need to have a grown-up conversation with you. Can we talk about something important?” He agreed, so I told him “We’re going over to Grandma’s to see your aunt and uncle and cousins, and everyone will be very sad because your cousin David died.” He nodded, hugged me, then asked if we could go outside and play before going to Grandma’s, so we did.
As we played outside, he asked me the questions I had been expecting – how did he die was the big one (I answered with just “he was very sick and there was nothing anyone could do). Then I told him his Aunt Tracy would be particularly sad, so he should be sure to give her a big hug. He asked, “Will a hug make her feel better?” I told him that a hug would make her feel a little better. “Then I want to give her a lot of hugs.” This got me so choked up I hugged him and told him it was an excellent idea.
Back to playing we went, then, a few minutes later, he started crying. “I want to bring Aunt Tracy a present!” When I asked what he wanted to give her he said, “I want to bring her flowers in a pot with dirt in it.” It was too late to run to a store, so I told him that and suggested that we could bring some wine. He thought that was a good second choice, so we grabbed a bottle and off we went.
When we got to his grandmother’s house, he ran to my sister-in-law, gave her a huge hug, then ran back to me to grab the wine and walked very carefully with it back to her and gave her another hug.
My son was always around the family, sometimes playing, sometimes hugging, now and then asking questions. I always answered him directly – reminding him of his cousin’s name, how old he was, that he wasn’t old, that mommy and daddy weren’t going to die… And I made sure he remembered the fun they had – like the time David and his brother Paul hung out with him and let him play their guitars as they fingered the chords. (That was already a great memory, and is accentuated now by our loss).
The next few nights were rough – my son wanted to be sure that we weren’t going to die, he had nightmares, he wet his bed. So we took to sleeping in one giant cuddle and stayed close. This helped him and while he may have acted up now and then due to lack of a good sleep, he seemed to be progressing through fear and sadness better than I had expected.
Part of the progress was driven by my son’s strong desire to find a way to say goodbye. My wife and I agreed that a wake would probably be too heavy for him at this age and it was unlikely he’d behave for 4 hours at a funeral home. We came up with a plan that I discussed with him and he agreed to, with some minor adjustments. Here’s what we did:
He would spend the afternoon of the memorial service with his 9 year-old cousin at our house while we went to the memorial service. Afterwards, we would pick him up for the repast at his grandmother’s house. We suggested he release a balloon as a way to say goodbye. This is the conversation that followed:
Him: Will the balloon find him where he is now?
Me: Maybe. But he’ll know you sent it to him.
Him: Is he building a house in this new place?
Me: Well, not really.
Him: But he’ll be all alone. He needs a guitar.
Me: He won’t be alone. He’ll always be with us.
Him: We should tie a guitar to the balloon so he’ll have one.
Me: Well, how about if we send a guitar-shaped balloon?
Him: Ok. Can I buy it with you?
Me: Of course you can.
That evening, just around sunset, my son and his 9 year-old cousin (who wanted a balloon of his own) stood in my mom’s front yard as everyone who was there gathered around them. There were A LOT of people, so I explained to them what the boys were doing, and then, as the boys said “Goodbye David!” they let go of the balloons and waved, while everyone watching called out “I love you!” and “Goodbye!” I’m sure there were tears, but I couldn’t see them through my own. Then there was total silence as we watched the balloons float up and away and disappear. My brother came up and hugged the boys, followed by my sister-in-law and David’s brother Paul.
I’m not quite sure how one is supposed to explain death to a 5 year-old, but my son seemed satisfied that he had been a part of the process and had a chance to say goodbye. He may still be a little sad, but so are the rest of us and that, we’ve told him, is ok. It just means we have more love than we had time to share.
Photo source: ah zut