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When my father recently passed away, I was not only faced with death and that my father was now “gone” forever, but I was faced with explaining this fact to my three-and-a-half year old.

The weeks prior to my father’s death were already a trial, because he was not well, and I was all of a sudden thrown in the role of a main caregiver, a mother and teacher to my father. Later, this was almost a blessing, since my daughter was there with me every day, helping me take care of him. She saw me feeding him, dressing him, helping with him go to the toilet, and my husband helping him take a shower. My father refused to go to the hospital, so I went to his house at least twice a day for a few hours. In this situation, I began questioning our social structure, and family configurations. I was considering having my father move in with us so I could take care of him, and I thought about my husband and I when we grow old. Is my daughter going to be able to take care of us??

Compare to the “old days”, when generations lived together, grandparents helped raise children; children and grandchildren helped take care of the elders as they ailed. Coming from a very small and widespread family, I was the only one there to take of my father. I believe when for the various reasons that families are pulling up roots and migrating so much, we do not realize that we are not only losing the family support, but also the security of being taken care of when we are old. Look at the masses of nursing homes and assisted living complexes. There is a whole industry out there geared and ready to take our “old people” off of our hands, and take care of them in lieu of being paid. Many of us are not able to take care of our parents, out of financial, time, and space reasons. We have our own families and hectic lives, and being faced with this fact, I was very sad. And what makes it even worse is, this cycle starts when we give our children to a daycare center, instead of having family there to help us raise them, and we feel that this is “normal”!

My husband comes from a family of eight, and his parents and grandparents had a lot of children and grand children around them to take care of them, as they got older. It was never a question if they should be confronted with the “sickness” or ailments of the elders, or if any of them would join the funeral services if someone passed away, as these children of all ages are continuously faced with death. In our personal case, people were questioning if my daughter should attend my father’s funeral, especially since we had a viewing.

Why is it that most people feel children should not be exposed to this sort of thing? Are we really doing them a favor? Being that my daughter was with me and saw how sick my father was up to the day he passed away, we decided that she should attend the funeral services so that she can have closure. Otherwise, she would always expect Opa to come back. We have always told her that people become angels when they die and that we can always talk to them when we want. We cannot see them, hug them, and sometimes they don’t talk back, but they are always around. This is truly my belief, so it is not a “fairytale”, per say. If you don’t believe this way, you must really think about how you want to explain the finality of death to your child when it happens. Children need a way to work out seeing a person one day, and that person being gone forever the next. Also, skeletons, muscles, and such fascinate my daughter; we let her watch “Forensic Science” and other shows supervised, so the thought of a body did not scare her.

All of these things were a blessing when it came time to explain that Opa is dead. It took a few days to sink in, and we gave her the option if she wanted to see Opa at his “going away celebration”. She decided she did, and I took a lot of time explaining that Opa would look and feel very different from the last time we saw him. Of course, I never thought about having to explain death to my daughter until it hit me personally, but could I turn back the clock now, I would prepare us all for the situation better. Surely, there are books or movies (“Old Yellow”??) that are child appropriate that you can use to explain things. Or by watching nature movies, and just explaining how a flower buds, blooms, and dies (a little abstract, but it is a good start). You have to be careful not to say, “Because he was old”, since you yourself are a fossil in a toddler’s eyes! If you use sickness as a reason, your child will panic every time you have a cold, because now you are sick and will die just like so-and-so. Now you see how necessary a plan is.

We explained the situation to her pre-school teacher, and sure enough my daughter went to school and told all her friends that her Opa is dead. Some parents expressed their dismay that she “scared” their children. I had no comment. We encouraged my daughter to speak about her feelings, and many days after the funeral service she would talk about it, and tell me she missed her Opa. She was digesting the situation and working it out in her own way. Still today she often talks about the last day we spent with him, and how she went and gave him an extra hug and kiss…

Some people expected me to hide the fact from my daughter that her Opa was dead, like a loved animal that dies and is secretly replaced. Honestly, can you really replace something you loved? I think death is a part of the life cycle our children need to understand, just like birth and growing older. Many other cultures celebrate death, giving those that are left behind peace, and time to grieve openly.

Now we often sit outside in our hammock, stare at the night sky, looking for Opa. When we find the brightest blinking star, we tell him our feelings and blow Opa a kiss…

Heike Boehnke-Sharp is a mom to one little Angel; two huge dogs, and lives with her husband in CA. She writes a monthly online column “
Attachment Parenting with a Twist” , is working on a book, and a website for women of all stages. For more information, see

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