Where’s Grandpa?

The other day, my daughter asked me who the guy was in the wedding picture, walking with Grandma and I up the aisle.

I told her it was her Grandpa.

My dad died about 6 months after the wedding. It was not unexpected. In fact, when the oncologist wrote “+/- 6 mos” in the prognosis box of his disability form, we knew it might be time to change the date of our wedding.

Fast forward 13 years and my daughter, who will be turning 4 this month, realized there was a guy she didn’t know in the pictures she likes to rummage through.

“Where is he?”

At first, I didn’t know what to say. My mind flashed to the scene in the “Shipping News” when the little girl freaks out because the father had told her that her mother was sleeping with the angels. She couldn’t understand why her mother wouldn’t wake up. I suddenly had images of my daughter never going to sleep again, out of fear that she might not wake up either. Scratch that option.

I could have made something up: he’s in heaven (which I do not believe); he’s ‘away’ (which was lacking in substance and I knew she would poke holes in that one in no time).

So I told her the truth.

“He was very, very sick. And then he died.”

She looked at me with wide eyes: “He died?”

“Yes, baby, he died.”

“Like Coral?” (Referring to the mommy fish in Finding Nemo, who dies in the first 4 minutes of the movie.)

“Well, it didn’t happen like that. He didn’t get eaten by a big fish. But yes, like Coral.”


And with that, she dropped it. For a few days.

Then yesterday, while eating her supper, she announced:
“My Grandpa died. He was very sick. And then he died.”

“Yes, honey.”

“Okay mommy.”

So how much has she really understood? How much has she internalized and is just processing in her little, almost 4 year old, way? I don’t know. I do know that I am glad I told her the truth rather than some cockamamie story that I would eventually have to back peddle and alter as she got older.

Am I a hypocrite, considering the vast lies I have been telling about the big man in the red suit who will be visiting on Christmas Eve? Sure. I told her there was a Santa. I even showed her a video of him talking to her, with her name and photograph included. I am pushing that lie to the limits. Because that lie is fun. That lie creates a magical world of wonder for her. My dad being dead isn’t fun on any level and there is no magic in that reality.

How have you handled the truth with your kids? How have you told them difficult news?

8 thoughts on “Where’s Grandpa?

  1. This is a tough one. We were lucky (?) enough to lose a cat when my oldest was four, so when my dad died a year later she had some idea of what “dead” meant. Because of that, she and her sister are the playground authorities on death…

    I think the way you handled it is the only way to handle it — little bits of the truth, as they are relevant and tolerable.

    And then I guess you talk about your dad, so she knows that what survives is love and memories.

    Incidentally I found Hallowe’en a couple of years ago became a good time to talk about our beliefs and fears about death, and what happens when we die. “What are ghosts?” “Why are skulls scary?” “Who is that man with no face and a big knife?” (A local house has an inflatable grim reaper.)

    • We never talk about my dad. Let’s just say that he and I did not have a good relationship.

      I knew it would come up one day. Just not yet.

      Honesty is the best policy. Except when it comes to Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and…? Am I missing something? 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. We stick to the truth (with the exception of Santa of course), or a version that kids can process at any given age. The difficulty comes when other’s in their life are sick with something simple like the flu. When my kids were younger all they heard was ‘sick’ and it scared them. Important to specify the gravity of the sickness.

  3. Death is a part of life. We’re all going to die. Kids need to understand that, and from an early age. There’s no reason to euphemize it or shelter kids from it. I’ve been completely frank about death with my kids, even when they were very small.

    I am a Christian, but I don’t sugarcoat it to the kids.

    Modern life insulates us from death.

    I grew up in a small town in the rural Midwest. We all knew about death from the earliest age. Life revolves around growing livestock for slaughter. People hunt. Every year, someone you know is killed in a farm accident.

    A boy was killed in a farm accident, right in front of me, when I was 5. Two of my classmates died when we were in elementary school. The little boy across the street died when he was 10 and I was 11.

    Children’s books of an earlier age were far more frank about serious illness and death. Now, they’re all sanitized to make sure we don’t give them a bad dream. Instead, they get blood-spattered video games that turn it into a cartoon, and death just means you have to replay the level. Kids don’t understand the gravity of it.

  4. Pingback: I Got the Question | Send Me to Paris

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