How do you tell a little boy his grandfather has died?
This was not a question I had ever wanted to ask. And when faced with answering it, I struggled and stumbled.
The irony is that I was just a speaker at a conference on grieving children. My mother wrote a book about my father’s death when I was 4 called “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart” and she was giving a lecture about the benefits of the use of the book by therapists. I made an appearance as “Rachel,” the thriving adult who had once been a grieving child. I tossed around what I thought was helpful advice, about not pretending it didn’t happen, about having objects around that are tangible reminders of the person, about continuing to talk about it.
Perhaps it was good advice, but I was still unprepared when my phone rang and I heard my husband’s voice. His “Hi” was softer and less sure than usual.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“No, I’m not,” he said. “My dad died.”
I stood there crying on the street with my son in his stroller gazing out at the world in front of him unaware that our afternoon walk had taken a tragic turn.
And so we raced home to New York and only told our son that we were going on a big airplane. We did not tell him on the plane or once we got to N.Y. or even when he thought we were at a party, which was really our sitting shiva, the Jewish custom of receiving mourners.
We were talking about it at all moments in front of him, though. How could he not know, I wondered? He is only 2, just shy of 3, but he needed to be told. I was not sure he would understand. And worse, what if he did?
I turned to my mother to see what she had learned at her conference.
“Don’t say he’s sleeping,” she advised. “Don’t use the word sick. Then anytime he gets sick he’ll worry he may die.”
I tried to remember what I learned when I trained to be a grief counselor years ago. I had gone through the training but had never become a counselor because I was pregnant with my son and wanted to concentrate on life.
I called my sister, a therapist, for her advice.
“Be direct,” were her simple words.
So the day after the funeral I turned to my husband and declared that we needed to spend some time with Ben and tell him. He was being watched by a rotating amount of grandmothers and friends. We needed a little time alone, just the three of us.
And even if he did not understand, I needed to know we respected him enough to sit down and tell him and explain it to him. As his mother, I want to protect him. But I also know I cannot shield him, that he has a right to know, even if it is difficult for us as his parents.
And so that morning we headed out to Central Park. We stopped at a bench and sat down in this park in this city where both my husband and I grew up. In this park in this city, we played as children. He, a child of divorce. Me, a child being raised by a single mother. We know the worries children can carry. But it was not up to us to hide this from him. We cannot decide when these lessons are learned.
And so I started in about how if he had any questions he could ask me at any time and how we love him. I wanted to tell him about that book Grandpa had bought him called “I Love You All The Time” and how he came out from N.Y. for his first haircut and how he grilled burgers at his first birthday party and how Grandpa’s apartment was full of pictures of him, but I didn’t get there. I babbled and my husband stopped me.
“Don’t use so many words,” my husband said.
And I remembered my sister’s advice. Be direct. And so I turned to my 2-year-old son, with my husband by my side and said, “Grandpa is not here anymore. And he’s not coming back. Grandpa died.”
My husband started to cry.
“You sad Daddy?” he asked.
And my husband answered him, honestly and truthfully, “Yes, I’m sad.”
I do not remember if Ben said, “Be happy” or “I’m happy.” But the sentiment was the same. He saw his father crying and knew that if you are sad, you should try to get happy.
It was clear he did not understand. But we did not need to explain it more until he did. There is enough time for comprehending death. And so we got up from that bench and went to look at the big fountain. And we bought him a pretzel. And he played in the pretty park, as we trailed behind him, as 2-year-old boys are supposed to do.
Rachel Zients Schinderman lives in Santa Monica with her family. She can be reached at Rachel@mommiebrain.com.