For therapists: explaining a parent’s death to children

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I am working with a client whose husband died suddenly eleven days after the birth of their first child. That son is now just turning three and is asking incessantly, “where is my father?” The mother, nanny, etc., honor the question and respond that his father is in heaven. He is aware of many photos in the house, and his mother refers often to his father. He is a very bright little boy for his age. He seems to be trying to understand why he doesn’t have a father living with him. But I am not sure how much a three year old can understand. Do you have any thoughts or insights that would be helpful in this situation?


Dear JX,

Though we typically think of “grief work” as a profoundly emotional process–and indeed it is–it is in fact equally cognitive, as the grieving person or family tries to absorb what the loss means on practical and more abstract levels. In the case of a child, and especially a toddler who is trying to learn the world and inhabit language for the first time, the process can be doubly daunting. How can he make sense of this very present absence in his home and life, this emotionally relevant figure (as evident, probably, by the subtle sadness or anxiety visible in the faces of his mother, nanny and others), this father who is here and not here, situated in an intangible realm beyond his understanding? This, perhaps even more than the affective drama of the loss, can pose challenges for all concerned.

To appreciate this more fully, we can consider the substantial body of research on children’s conceptions of death. What this literature tells us is that children only gradually acquire an adult-like understanding of death as characterized by non-functionality (that is, the dead cannot physically move, breath, think, or talk), universality (that all living beings will one day die), and irreversibility (once dead, people cannot return to life). Between roughly the age of this little boy and entry into preadolescence, children unevenly take in these realities as they develop the cognitive skills to do so, mastering these abstract concepts in an uneven sequence that eventually approximates a mature understanding. Even then cultural factors (such as religious concepts of an afterlife) can challenge the growing child and continue to evolve, perhaps across the course of adult life. This, no less than skills in learning to talk, read, write, do arithmetic and master sports or a musical instrument, is a long process in which the child benefits from the mentoring of caring adults, who can offer answers and explanations geared to the child’s developmental level.

So, what might your client do for her child in this situation? An important preliminary step is one she might well be taking in her work with you: do her own grief work, in the sense of responding compassionately to her own sense of loss and its meaning in her life, seeking support and even growth through this hard passage. As she accomplishes this, she will be in a clearer position to address her child’s needs and curiosity. Answering her son’s question about the whereabouts of his father with the response that he is in heaven could be a good beginning of a more substantial conversation. How did he die? (e.g., He got very sick, and the doctors couldn’t fix him; he had an accident and his body was broken.) What does it mean that my father is dead? (e.g., His body doesn’t work anymore, so he can’t talk, move, or eat.) Where is his body? (e.g., It is in the cemetery, where we put dead people to remember them and to let them go back to the earth and become a part of nature.) Can I see him? (e.g., We can see him in our minds when we think of him, and maybe in our dreams, and in pictures and videos.) Can he see me? (e.g., Many people think so, but we can’t be sure.) Can I talk to him? (e.g., Yes, you can write him a letter, or draw him a picture. If you tell me what you would like to say, I will write it down for you.) You get the idea. She can speak the truth simply, as she understands it, acknowledging the limits of human understanding, and being led by his curiosity.

Note that this is very different than giving a simple reassurance: it is taking his questions as “teachable moments” for helping him grow and learn lessons about life at his own pace, questions that will evolve in sophistication as he does. And in this she need not be alone: there are many books on grief for young children that she can research, and grief camps in many communities where he can meet with other children like him who have lost a parent, staffed by counselors who can help explain death and affirm life. In combination with the essential work you do, this can be a great support for this family going forward.

Dr. Neimeyer

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