Q. My father is dying, and, aside from my sadness, I'm concerned about how my 4-year-old will react when I tell him Grandpa's died. How should I handle it?
A. It will be hard news to deliver no matter how you choose your words. It's painful to have to tell an innocent child about life's cruelest fact: People you love die. It's best to do it simply, and then expect to revisit the topic many times over.
First, have frequent small talks now about the fact that Grandpa is very sick, isn't getting better, and may soon die. That way, your son won't be shocked when he does.
When you do explain why your father died, you might say, "Grandpa was old, and his body got very sick. His heart stopped working and it couldn't be fixed, so he died. But when a person's body dies, he's not in pain anymore."
If your child asks where people go when they die, you'll have to rely on your own beliefs to guide you. If you're not sure what to say, admit it: "I don't know. Some people think that our soul, the invisible core of a person, goes back to God when we die. What do you think?"
Lobbing your son's questions back to him will give him the chance to define his own thought. He'll usually find comfort in his own answers.
You may be surprised by how much he consoles you too. "When I came home from the hospital the day my mother died," says Mollie Hart of Berkeley, CA, "Alex, my five-year-old, knew what had happened from my husband. Alex just said, 'I heard about your mom,' and then he hugged me. It felt like I was the child."
You might also ask your son if he'd like to have a photo of Grandpa to keep for himself. It will remind him of the times they had together, and memories are what keep loved ones—or at least their spirits—alive.