Q: Within the past year I lost my father to complications of diabetes and just last week my father-in-law learned that he is dying of cancer.
I am concerned about the effect this is having on my sons (7 and 3 years old). When my father died, my husband and I explained to them that Poppy was with God. But now my youngest seems to have the idea that anyone who is old will die soon. He asks everyone, "You're not old, are you?"
He poses this question to my husband and me daily, despite our reassurances.
How can we deal with death as a less scary, more natural part of life?
A: Your younger son finds death so hard to understand because he doesn't think as you do.
A 3-year-old is still extremely self-centered. He never questions his own ideas -- even in the face of contradictory evidence -- because he still can't unravel an idea back to its beginning or consider one that's different from his own. He is inclined to see things as absolutes: If one old person dies than all old persons are in danger, and from his viewpoint, any grown-up is practically ancient. This may seem like he can understand cause and effect, but that's not so.
His is the intuitive age, and he guesses to get to his answers. Because he has made a superficial connection between age and death, he now worries that you or his dad might die.
Even your 7-year-old will have trouble because he doesn't think on an adult level either, no matter how articulate he is.
He's past the time of leaping to conclusions by way of pure hunches, but he's years away from thinking in abstractions. If he is to understand anything, it must be in concrete terms. This is a blessing, which is probably why nature arranged it, for he can't really believe you or his dad could die.
So what do you tell both boys? The truth.
You can't kid a child. They know when something is wrong, and if they don't know what it is, they get fearful and anxious. The truth, presented clearly, gently and matter-of-factly, will help them accept death as a natural part of life.
You probably haven't told them your father-in-law is dying and that's wise -- for he and the children need to have hope -- but you do want to tell them that their grandfather is pretty sick.
You also want to let them see him often if he's nearby and not in great pain or delirious, to let them talk to him on the phone, and to encourage them to send him their drawings and letters and souvenirs. Death brings grief, but these small goodbyes will make it easier for the children and teach them the privilege of caring for the sick.
The honesty you show now should carry right to the end and afterwards -- if the children go to the funeral, they will have a much easier time believing that he has died.
It's important for the children to take part in the rituals and even add to them, by reciting a poem at the service or dropping flowers in the grave. Studies show that children who have been involved in the whole mourning process, each step of the way, get over their grief better and sooner than children who have been excluded.
You and your husband also want to be honest about your own reactions. Don't be ashamed to cry in front of the boys or to say you feel lonely; this gives them the right to express their feelings, too.
You'll profit by The Courage to Grieve by Judy Tatelbaum (Harper, $5.95), which has a special, well-researched section on the way children handle grief and how adults can help them.
The Healing Family by Stephanie Matthews Simonton (Bantam, $14.95) deals specifically with cancer and gives practical advice for the patient and those around him.
Questions may be sent to Family Almanac, P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.