Adults and children process grief very differently. Here are some tips from personal experience about what is helpful with a preschool child dealing with grief.
I was very open with Nicky about how things were going in hospital. As every doctor meeting arrived with worse and worse news, there wasn’t really a way to sugar coat it. I remember actually saying something along the lines of “when all these hospital visits stop”, and him asking when that was going to be and my saying “when dad dies.” And he accepted it. By that stage the months had taken their toll and I think we were all hoping and praying for an end to his misery.
When Brett actually passed it was during the night time when Nicky was asleep. He only found out about it the next morning. I told him very honestly that dad had died. No fancy language, but in a way for him to understand that dad was not coming back. He understood.
Let Them Attend the Funeral
I think it was vital for Nicky to attend the funeral. To be with the extended family and celebrate the life of his father. My niece Emma put together an amazing power point of his life which I am glad Nicky could see. Even when I gave my eulogy I included Nicky in some way, mentioning all the toys that dad had given Nicky just to make him happy. I looked at him when I talked about it and he agreed with me.
When I went up I also made sure that Nicky had someone to sit with, which was his aunt Debbie. Keeping him safe and secure was important.
You might want to make this call yourself on whether the child could attend or not. You know your child best and also if it would be best for him or her. For us we needed to do this.
Let Them Play
Children have a totally different way of processing emotions than adults. During the Blitz in London, children played out the trauma of the bombs. Adults talk, children play.
I made sure that I had Nicky’s bath toys all out for him to play with. He has a set of a family – Zebra and Lion are the parents and Horsy and Parrot are the kids. (Added to this Horsy always has diarrhea sitting on the toilet and Parrot is a bit of a mechanic and doctor and fixes things). We also have another horse and another little donkey.
The night after the funeral he played out a scenario where everyone died except the little donkey. And he had a funeral for them. My heart just broke because in all of this it left the little donkey so vulnerable, but he was expressing his emotions. I’ve also made an effort to let him know that he’s not by any means alone and that he has other family to support him. In fact I’ve drawn up a will that makes special provision for someone to look after him in the event of my death and I’ve told him about it.
Play therapy is a great addition to helping your child. Nicky went to the school psychologist who played and did activities with him. She also read a book to him about death.
Just Be There
Show yourself to be emotionally available to your child. You are grieving as well, and you can be open about that. Nicky has hugged me so many times when I’ve cried, I feel bad for him. But I’ve also been there for him to answer his questions, whatever they may be, and if he needed to sleep with me for a bit. This happened after my mom left for a week, having her gone was another blow for him (and us) and he needed to sleep with me and have that security.
Yes, there might be regression in your child, but that’s ok. This is a major life event, they’re allowed to take a step backwards before going forwards again.
Keep Routines in Place
When so much has changed in their lives, it’s good to keep other things the same. I think this is also why I am delaying selling the house and moving. I’m trying to keep some things the same before we have to change them, although Nicky might be more ready than I am to move. He’s quite excited to look for another place. Keeping his school the same and doing all the normal things we do is helping us keep sane in this new normal.
The important thing to remember is that there is no one generic timeline for grief – it affects everyone and every child differently. I know there will be more challenges to come in the future as we face certain milestones without Brett. But I know that together we will figure it all out, as long as I am there for him.