Over the last month or two, Will has been perseverating over Nana’s death. It started one day when he picked up a picture frame of our family. The photo was taken at the very last trip we took before my mom passed away, on the front porch of the lake house that we had rented. Will had only been 22 months when my mom passed away, and one of my greatest fears was that he would never remember anything about her. Out of the blue, Will told his daddy that this was his favorite photo, and that he missed Nana.
And the conversation didn’t stop there. He continued to bring Nana up every now and then over the next several weeks. Once, when we were driving home from school, I looked in the rearview mirror to see Will crying. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me he missed Nana, and he was sad that she wouldn’t be coming back.
Explaining death to a 3 ½ year old has been a lot more difficult than I ever thought it would be. His thinking is so concrete, and takes everything so literally at this stage. In the car that day, I told him that Nana didn’t want to die, but unfortunately she was really sick with cancer (emphasis on the cancer part – I didn’t want him to worry that he was going to die the next time he got a cold). I also told him that I miss her too, because she was my mommy. He started crying even harder because then he was sad that I didn’t have a mommy here anymore. Sweet boy. I then tried to help him feel better by trying to explain heaven. I told him that death is forever, but even though she is gone she is always with us. She lives in heaven. He then asked questions about heaven, asking how she could be with us if she was dead. I was at a complete loss for words. I felt like every time I tried to explain something abstract, these euphemisms regarding death were only confusing him more.
After that complicated conversation in the car, I began researching ways to explain death to a 3 year old. I wanted to be prepared the next time that he brought it up, and knowing him, it would most certainly come up again. Tonight was that moment. I went into his room after we had said goodnight to him because I heard him crying. I went in to see what the matter was, and he told me he was missing his Nana. Here is how our conversation went:
Will: Mommy, I miss Nana. Is she really gone forever?
Me: Yes sweetheart, Nana is gone forever.
I then went on to explain the facts of what happens to a person’s body when they die. I wanted him to be able to grasp something concrete. I also told him how hard Nana fought to stay here on earth for him, because she loved him so much. But as much as she wanted to stay here, the cancer made her too sick, so now she is in heaven.
Will: (He smiled when I told him that she fought so hard to stay here for him. He paused and then asked…) Mama, is she up in space?
His sweet little mind trying to process what heaven is like, and he is picturing his Nana up in space – one of his favorite places. Yes sweetheart, she is up in space, watching over you among the stars.