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How to Tell Your Kids About Death

How My 3-Year-Old Daughter Helped Me Heal After My Dad Died

As a parent, the last thing you ever want to do is give your child a reason to be sad. But life happens, and in those moments where you're so harshly smacked in the face with reality, it's not always easy (or best) to hide it from your kids. My daughter loved her grandfather (my dad), and I recently found myself at a loss about how to explain to an almost-4-year-old that her beloved best friend wasn't going to be around anymore.

My dad's health had been declining in recent years, but my daughter never saw that. All she knew was his infectious energy when she visited him and being able to take rides with him on his motorized scooter. Visits with Poppa were filled with doing puzzles, putting on shows, sharing snacks, and proudly being shown off to his friends in the assisted living facility. In her eyes, she had a loving grandfather with a big smile, a twinkle in his eye, and a hearty laugh. To her, he was strong, durable, reliable, and permanent.

After we walked in silence for a few minutes, she looked up at the sky, pointed, and said, "Look, Mommy! There's Poppa! He's smiling down at me!"

When he passed away, I knew it wouldn't be easy to explain. My husband and I waited a few days to tell her for no other reason than we just didn't know how. But while I was trying to keep my grieving private as not to worry her, it became increasingly difficult to hide when I would randomly break down. So, when we were out for a walk one day, it felt like the right time.

I opened the conversation with a question. "You know how we have angels who watch over us?" I asked. "Yes, like Oma Ellen and Nanny Florence!" she said, referring to my mother-in-law and grandmother who both passed before my daughter had a chance to meet them. "That's right, Oma Ellen and Nanny Florence are some of our angels in Heaven. Well, we have a new angel to watch over us now." "We do? Who?" "Poppa." She was distracted by a stick she was carrying and without looking up, said, "Poppa?" "Poppa went to Heaven and now he is one of our angels. We can talk to him whenever we want, we can just look up and say, 'Hi Poppa!' and tell him about our day or whatever we want. We just won't be able to see him here anymore." Still picking at the stick, she replied, "Well, we can see him if we drive to his house."

This stumped me for a minute. My husband and I exchanged looks, and then the words just flowed out of my mouth. "Well, you're right, that is how we would see him before, but God was ready for Poppa to be with Him, so he isn't at his house anymore. He's up in Heaven."

She looked thoughtful, but unfazed. I went on to explain that people here on Earth feel sad that he had to go to Heaven, but that it was really a good thing and it's always nice to have extra angels watching over us. I also told her that she might be seeing Mommy and Daddy or her grandmother and aunts and uncles crying, but she doesn't need to worry. I told her everyone is OK and that it'll just take time to get used to Poppa not being here anymore. I asked if she had any questions, to which she replied a simple "No," and I told her she could talk to any of us about it or ask anything whenever she wanted.

After we walked in silence for a few minutes, she looked up at the sky, pointed, and said, "Look, Mommy! There's Poppa! He's smiling down at me!" My husband and I looked up to see a hole in the overcast clouds and a sliver of shining light. My eyes filled with tears and a smile came to my face. "Yeah? You think that's him?" "Yup!" I don't know how much of what I said she understood, but that one sentence, with her upturned face and little finger pointing at the sky, chipped away at the grief I was feeling and allowed some light to shine into my heart during a very difficult time. My shoulders didn't feel as heavy, and my broken heart got its vital first stitch. I realized then that while I had no idea what to say to her to make it better, she knew exactly what to say to me.

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