My mother passed away over 17 years ago, and my father has since re-married a wonderful woman named "Ruth". I have a very good relationship with Ruth - we talk a few times a week on the phone, go shopping together and generally enjoy eachother's company.
When my daughter was born two years ago, I never hesitated in having her call my step-mother "Grandma Ruth". My daughter loves spending time with her Grandma Ruth and the two of them have developed a very special relationship that I'm sure will continue in the years to come, which I'm very happy about.
My question is, how and what do I say to explain the unique family circumstances to my daughter? She is just starting to understand families and the idea of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, and she loves to look at our family picture albums. I've shown her pictures of my mother and I refer to my mother as Grandma "Sally". So far, she hasn't raised the fact that she hasn't met Grandma Sally but I know that she will eventually ask me where Grandma Sally is and/or whether Grandma Ruth is my mommy.
How do I explain it all to her in an age appropriate manner? The lesson I'd like to convey is that good things (Having Grandma Ruth be part of her life) came come out of bad things (not meeting Grandma Sally). But I know someday I will have to explain the concept of death and dying to her, and I'd like to have a pre-school appropriate response so I am not caught off-guard.
Thanks, From: Motherless Daughter, Newton, MA
Dear Motherless Daughter,
I am sorry for your loss, but happy for your gain, and your daughter will be, too, because of your love for both these women.
Right now, she needs only to know the names of all her grandmas, Grandma Ruth, Grandma Sally and whatever she calls your husband's mom. It's great to show her photos of your mother and to call her, "My mom, grandma Sally." The distinction between the two is this this: "Grandma Ruth is someone you see every so often. Grandma Sally isn't someone you see because she died. When people die, we can't see them anymore, but we think of her and love her."
Don't be afraid of using the words, death, dead, died. Being truthful is important. Children take euphemisms literally. In my book, I interviewed Boston grief psychologist Maria Trozzi who tells the story of a 5-year-old whose infant sister died at Christmas. His parents told him, "The angels took her." Fives weeks later, they brought him to see Trozzi because he hadn't slept for more than an hour or two a night since.
Did he want to talk about his sister, she asked.
"No," he said. "I want to talk about the angels. Two things about them. There are lots of them and they are on the loose at Christmas. The second thing is that they don't have headlights. You can't see them coming so you have to stay awake."
Your daughter is too young to grasp even this concept, but being truthful from the start gives you time to get used to saying the words out loud to her, and normalizes the words for her so that, in a year or more, she will feel comfortable to ask questions like, "Where is Grandma Sally?"
Preschoolers' concept of death is mercurial; they believe it is reversible. So even though you have said, repeatedly, "Grandma Sally died," she may say, "When will I see her? When will she come back?" The answer is, "Grandma Sally died. That means she isn't coming back. When someone dies, it's forever." The trick is not to give more information than she's asking for. For now, at age 2ish, she will accept what you tell her, and listen to your stories about when you were a little girl, and like the photo albums. In a year or two, she may understand that when there's a dead insect on the sidewalk, it's dead. It doesn't move any more, or poop or eat or breath. That's what it means to die.That's when she may connect death to Grandma Sally.
That's really all the preparation you need for now. Write in again when she starts to ask questions!
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