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Sudden Death of a Parent

One of my readers sent me this sad letter:

“My husband and I divorced not long after our son was born (almost three years ago). Our relationship enabled us to maintain a good schedule with our son and he has done very well with both his father and with me. Yesterday his father died very, very suddenly and unexpectedly. Even though my son is not quite 3 years old, I know once his schedule is interrupted that he will have questions as to where his dad is. What is the appropriate thing to tell him at this time?”

My answer:

The child must be told the truth. In a child this young the loss of a parent is especially devastating and, sadly, a part of him will always reflect that loss.

Your role in helping your son grieve is critical. In dealing with the subject of death, parents should always BE HONEST, MODEL HOW TO DEAL WITH FEELINGS, GIVE THE CHILD A CHANCE TO TALK ABOUT IT, and EMPOWER THE CHILD TO DEAL WITH THE GRIEF.

Your role is difficult because you have to be honest and compassionate within the parameters of what a child this young can comprehend. Your role is doubly difficult because the death was sudden and unexpected. There was no time to prepare yourself or the child. This is why accidents, natural disasters, and war are so devastating to children and to us all.

When you tell your son his father has died, he may ask whether he will ever see his father again or if his father is ever coming back. Although preschoolers believe in magic and think death is reversible, you must tell the truth. Use religious explanations depending on your beliefs but the bottom line is that his father is not coming back and death means he is gone forever. Share your own grief both for the loss of this man and what it means to your son. Cry with your boy and tell him how sad you feel.

If you are asked what “dead” means explain it happens when a person stops breathing and his body doesn’t work any more. Stress that most people die when they are very old and that you will not die for a very long time and neither will he. Be sure to tell your son it was not his fault as very young children worry that they might have done something bad to cause the death.

Give the child tasks to do. Make a memory book together with pictures and memories you write down for the child. Ask him to draw a picture of his Daddy for this book and another picture for his Daddy–the two of you can tie it to a balloon and let it go. Check out the library for picture books about death. There are websites and community agencies like Children to Children than advise parents what to do and help children deal with grief.

You may be surprised that your son does not cry much if at all when he is first told. But as the days go by he will miss his father and his old routine. His grief may be expressed in regression, discipline problems like aggression, not eating, and sleep disturbances.

In addition to honesty and compassion, give your child lots of extra love and hugs. When he gets older call on relatives to be sure there are male role models in his life.

I’m glad you told me there was no post-divorce rancor. Having good memories of Daddy without having to feel guilty because Mommy was mad at him is a plus for your son.