A mother's experience in explaining the death of her daughter to her 2 year old son, and the lessons learned from that.
I will never forget September 16, 1998. On that day, I came home after working a night shift only to discover my 11 month old daughter not breathing, trapped between the bed and the wall. As I rushed her down stairs and performed CPR my husband called 911. It was only after the paramedics arrived and pronounced her dead that I turned and realized my 2 1/2 year old son was sitting patiently on the couch, as confused as ever.
At first, I told my son that Gabriella was in heaven. What does heaven mean to a 2 year old boy? However, he seemed pacified. Then about four months later, I took him to the cemetary because we were moving out of state and I didn't know when we could come back. As we started our 20 hour drive that day, he started asking me "How all those kids were in the sky." I am not a religious person, and I didn't know how to respond. So I started explaining to him about Jesus, and God, and that we are only here on earth a short time. He asked if he could go see Jesus - and I simply told him that everyone gets to see Jesus someday, but it would probably be when he was much older. I wanted him to stop! It sounds terrible - but these questions were too much and I was prepared for them, not yet. I always thought that I could explain these things when someone died who was supposed to, such as an older grandparent, not his sister.
It wasn't until we visited my friend and her new daughter that I realized how traumatic my daughter's death really was for this little boy. As we left my friends house, he started crying very loud. When asked what was wrong, he replied "I want our baby. I want our Gabriella back!" I fell to the ground, put my arms around him, and cried. "I do too," I said, "I do too. But even though we can't see her, we can talk to her. Anytime you want." So we began a ritual. Everytime he got a new toy, or if something exciting happened to him, we would go upstairs to his room and tell her about it. It was so theraputic, for both of us. For her birthday, he sang her a song, and we told her how much we loved her. I decided to make my son an active member in my own grieving process. I shared with him my feelings when I was having a bad day. If I dug out some pictures of her I would call him over and we would look together. And finally, when I designed her website, he assited in choosing the photos and graphics and was very excited when it was all together.
I made it very clear to other family members that it was ok for him to greive and that I would prefer it if no one interferred with his own emotions. I have found this to be very helpful.
I have learned other techniques through some online support groups I am involved with. One lady described sitting with her daughter and taking a brown paper sack. In the sack, they placed drawings of what they thought her little brother would look like. Then, the mother crumpled up the bag. She removed the cut-outs, and explained to the little girl that the bag was like the body, it was just a shell, and sometimes that shell doesn't work anymore. But the stuff inside is still there. I did this with my son, and he really seemed to understand the concept. It was emotional for me, but I think I healed along with him.
My son just turned four years old. In the past year and a half I have learned many things. Most importantly, I have realized that allowing my son to share his feelings and share in my own greiving process has helped both of us. We are growing and coping together. And although my little girl will always have a special place in our hearts, the sadness that once encompassed our daily lives has evolved into joy in remembering the little things that we all shared. We discuss the things that we remember, and we keep the pictures on the wall. I just think that as parents we need to keep in mind that our surviving children, no matter how young, are grieving too. They feel the loss, and it is important to talk about those feelings to ease their fears. As adults we have a tough enough time dealing with death, with children it is even harder.