how do i help my 4 yr old through the death of her father?

Brittany - posted on 06/05/2011 ( 22 moms have responded )

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On January 6th of this year, my ex-husband and the father of my 4 yr old and 1 yr old girls took his own life. He and I had been seperated for almost a year and divorced for 6 months so the girls had been living with me. Because he lived in another state, they didn't visit him as often as they would have had we lived in the same area. Nonetheless, my oldest daughter loved her dad with all her heart and is having a very hard time with his death. Because of the nature of his death, I simply explained his death to her as "an accident" and left it at that. Naturally she assumes he had a car accident, which obviously isn't the case, but I have yet to correct her. Being 4 (turning 5 in a few weeks) she is inquisitive and asks a lot of questions that I really don't know how to answer in fear that I will some how scar her for life. I was hoping that some of you may have advice on how to handle this situation delicately so this little girl can still have a wonderful, happy childhood despite this awful situation.

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Brittany - PLEASE feel free to send me a PM. My dad is a pastor and he also started the suicide prevention network in our area. He is a police chaplian and he goes on MANY police visits to families of suicide victims. I really don't know what you should say to your daughter, but he would and he would be more than happy to talk to you about it if you want. If you would like his info (I'm not asking for yours because of privacy issues) please send me a PM and I'll give you his office number and hours.

I am so sorry this happened and you and your daughters have to go through all this. It is so painful when someone close to us dies on accident, but suicide is even more so and I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers over this difficult time.

Sara - posted on 07/05/2011

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I am so sorry for your loss, your daughters' loss, and this new responsibility you have to carry. It's a lot; don't forget that, so when you start feeling dragged down, please pay attention and go for counseling, if only for the opportunity to talk and talk, or do whatever helps.

My boyfriend -- age 47, father of a 7-yo girl -- killed himself just before Christmas last year, and her mother has been trying very hard to protect the girl from knowledge of what happened. Which I understand. But as far as I know, they hadn't discussed with her his rather serious mental illness. And -- as the mother of a child whose father is seriously mentally ill myself -- I know it's not an easy thing to do in any way.

It's important, though, because it gives the child some sort of language, some framework and idea, to hang onto. She won't understand it all at once, and you do have to choose the words carefully. When my daughter was two and her daddy was in the mental hospital, I told her that he had a "booboo in his head" that made him very sad. I put it that way because I didn't want her to equate sadness with being sick; a booboo, on the other hand, is a form of being unwell.

Your older girl isn't yet old enough to understand depression, but I bet she knows about brains and booboos. So you can tell her that he had a booboo in his brain that made him so sad he didn't know how to stop being sad. It wasn't anything anyone but a doctor could have helped him with, but maybe he didn't go to the doctor in time. And that booboo got so bad that he started believing things that weren't true, like it would be better if he weren't alive. That kind of booboo can make people think that way. So he found a way to die. It doesn't mean he didn't love her -- not at all. It only means he was very very confused, and that booboo in his brain was mixing him up badly and making him feel just terrible.

If she wants to know how he "found a way to die", I think I would probably be straightforward in telling her that this is something you will tell her when she is older, but she is too little now, and not ready for it. And then, because she'll need some sort of story, let her come to you. Tell her she can talk to you or ask you about it anytime, though of course you won't tell her exactly what happened till she's old enough. But she'll come to you with theories that she's ready to handle, and you can say, "Oh, do you think so?" and "That sounds very sad," and the like, and when she's ready for more information, she'll come and ask the questions.

I find openness to questions and talking is more important than just about anything else. I pray that I won't have to have this conversation someday with my daughter, but I'm aware it may happen. Please let us know how it goes for you and your children.

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Any time Brittany :)

Crying on the phone is okay (and even encouraged - crying is a very good way of getting stress and emotions out so they can be dealt with) and my dad completely understands. He'll also understand if you want to email though. I've already spoken to him about this and told him I offered his help so he will know a little bit about it if you contact him. Also, if you're not very religious just tell him. He's not one to shove religion down someone's throat and he WILL give counseling if you need it. He can also help you find religious counseling for you and/or your daughter in your area if you want. I don't know where you are, but he has a network of pastors (he's Methodist) all over the country that he can call on if you want him to. :)

This is such a difficult situation and I hope you can all get through it. Maybe you could make your daughter a photo album or scrapbook with pictures of her father as something she can have to remember him forever.

April - posted on 06/08/2011

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Children are smarter then you think, so the 5 year old will figure out what is going on. Losing a parent at a young age is never easy for a child. I lost my mother at 9, and still not over it. Books do help, especially for a person that young as well as support groups for children. When my mother passed, my school at the time had a grieving support group. She will have a happy childhood b/c of a wonderful mother overtime it will become less, but the first year or two will be very difficult. Here are some books I found on amazon that may be helpful
I Miss You: A First Look At Death
Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Children (Looking Up)
The Invisible String
Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies (My favorite)

Nicole - posted on 06/07/2011

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In my opinion, I think you should be completely honest with her, but using the word suicide I would say is a bit much. Since she is school age and will be confronted with questions by her new classmates and even teachers about her family. Her saying that her daddy committed suicide will raise questions that she will not be able to answer due to not understanding what suicide is. If you use the word you have to explain the word, and not in a little person context either. Later on she will have to know the truth, but when you feel she is ready to understand it.

My advice would be to tell her that her daddy was unhappy and had a severe mental issue that ended with him dying. Make her understand that he LOVED her very much but was so sick that he had to leave this world but watches her and her sister with all his love. If you and your children are people of faith, try to reach out for help that way to. Remember it takes a village. Sadly these types of situations are lost on small children, memories will fade away and maybe another man will take that place. If you are willing to keep his memory alive for her, you should always do so, not when it is just convenient.

The biggest lesson for her to learn here is what death is. Parents do not explain it enough, and children deserve the right to know and understand what it is to lose someone and how to deal with it. This will make her stronger in life if you explain it to her correctly and sympathetically.

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Brittany - posted on 07/30/2013

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I know it's been forever, but I want to thank you for your suggestion. I was able to talk to my daughter about what really happened and used your "boo boo" example as my guide. I explained to her that her daddy was sick in his head and because it was in his head no one could see that he was sick and so we didn't know he needed to go to the doctor. From there, she made her own realization that because his head was sick he didn't know right from wrong and that's why he didn't know it is wrong to kill yourself. I'm so happy to finally have the truth out in the open and that she is seemingly ok with that explanation. She was sad at first because she thought her daddy didn't want to be here on Earth with her, but I helped her understand that wasn't true at all. She is now 7 years old and is living a normal life, despite this tragic event. Now, I face the daunting task of explaining her daddy's death to my youngest daughter who was 1 at the time but is almost 4 now....I'm not sure when the right time to approach the subject. Although she knows her daddy is in heaven, we've never discussed what happened and I'm not sure that we should. For now, atleast.

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My niece was the same age when her brother died. For her there wasn't much hidding. She knew that he had been sick and that they traveled a long way from home to try and make him better. The hospital actually assigned a therapist to her, to help her get through all of those hard questions and confusing moments.

She did have truama from it, but it only lasted about a year. It was mainly regression, like bedwetting.

I would highly suggest getting her into a therapist that can help her figure out in a child mindset what is going on and how it affects her.

I blamed myself for my grandparents deaths for years even though they died when I was still a baby. I would really watch for it. Especially since she was so close to him. She may start to feel like, if she had been a good girl, or if she had shared that toy, etc; that daddy would still be here.

Jen - posted on 06/09/2011

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It is hard for children to understand death as we as adults do. My brother died 4 years ago when my neighbors (who we are very close to) were 6 and 8. They understood that he wasn't coming back, but the 6 year old still had trouble understanding.

I would try to answer your daughter's questions as honestly and as best as you can. Obviously she's way to young to understand suicide, but as long as she knows that he's not coming back, you've probably covered the basics. If you're religious, I would try to include as much of your religion in there as you see fit. Children are pretty resilient so I'm sure she'll still have a happy childhood.

I still haven't been able to explain to my daughter about my brother's death. She's been out to his grave site and I have told her that her uncle is in heaven, but it's obviously hard for her especially since she never met him.

I wish you the best of luck. :)

Shanna - posted on 06/08/2011

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I dont simply wish to state that which has already been stated, but many professionals would tell you kids at that age do not understand death and the finality --so then why even attempt to devil into the ideas of specifics surrounding the "accident". (The understanding of death and perception coming around age 6)-- April posted some rather good books and I have had the opportunity to read a few while working the hospital and they are pretty good, but again I would continue to expect many questions because she isnt expected to comprehend fully what the idea of death is...even if she is an exceptionally bright young girl. There are also many parenting books on speaking to kids about death that I would check out...have to google them, or try to remember and post back...

Megan - posted on 06/08/2011

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Wow rough poor little thing, I myself lost my father sept last yr in a car accident and having to deal with that is hard ontop of which my kids 3 n almost 5 lost their grandad they were here when i got the news and kept asking why was i crying. I know the situation is a little different but I have told them that he will always be with them, we go thru photos and only remember the good times not the hard times (this helps so they dont forget him being so little) we have also chosen a STAR in the sky n "gragra" lives in the sky now. they talk to this star occasionally. We lost our cat so they also believe gra gra is taking care of the cat. I know the situations are not the same but maybe some of this will help in a similar way

Amy - posted on 06/08/2011

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I agree that details of that nature will haunt your daughter and you may indeed scar her for a life. I would let her carry on believing it was a car accident until she's at least 10.

I would suggest you comfort, support and talk to her about how she feels and encourage her to open up as much as possible. I don't think you can take the hurt away, so let her talk to you about it. Good luck :)

Melly - posted on 06/07/2011

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Brittany you really are in a hard situation, and I really feel for you and your daughter. Maybe Holly's advice of seeking professional help from someone who deals with this particular situation is best. I agree that using the word suicide is a little confronting for a child your daughters age. I am sure you will come across the best way to deal with this, and I wish you lots of love and strength during this terrible time.

Brittany - posted on 06/06/2011

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yea, i don't know about using the word suicide. being the age she is, she likes to tell her friends at daycare EVERYTHING and i don't want that coming out to them and then me having to explain to the angry parents why their child is asking what suicide is! i never really intended on telling her it was an accident, but the day i found out about his death, that was the best explanation i could think of. my mind was in an awful place and since he had been calling her almost every day prior to his death, i had to think of a reason why her daddy wouldn't be calling anymore. i was criticized by his family when i later asked for details about his death so that i would know what to say to her when she asked. i was told that i was horrible for even considering explaining the situation to her....so i felt torn. now that she has convinced herself that he had a car accident i feel sort of trapped in that scenario. i know that everyone will have different opinions on this subject...but i was just hoping for an outsider's view on the situation because obviously i don't know what to do!

√v^√v^√♥ - posted on 06/06/2011

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well if she was going to say daddy was unhappy/sad for too long.. it's the same thing. without using the word 'suicide' so i think it's okay without using that word

Melly - posted on 06/06/2011

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I see what you are saying too F.A.F. They shouldnt know everything.
I dont think she should give the specifics of how he actually took his own life, but definitely dont say he had an accident, or make up another scenario, as she will feel lied to. Then the daughter may wonder why she was lied to, she may think she was lied to because it was something she did, or that because her dad couldnt see her all the time he was unhappy and missed her, so she may blame herself.
Its a hard situation to be in, and really only the OP knows her own child and how well she can process information given to her.

√v^√v^√♥ - posted on 06/06/2011

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Makes perfect sense Melly :) but I don't think kids should know everything..... it'll hit them hard eventually anyway. Wether at 5, 7 or 10 or 12... one day she will just realize exactly what suicide means and even if her mom had told her all these years what it was....... it'll still be like 'oh' all over again. So I think it's okay to ease into it... but you make an interesting point :)

Melly - posted on 06/06/2011

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This is my opinion only, but I think you should tell her that he committed suicide. She would not understand the word, so she will most likely ask what that means, and you can say that daddy was very unhappy and he should have asked someone for help, but he didnt ask anyone for help, so this happened. Having her grow up knowing that is better than having her be grown up and know what it means and then be told that he committed suicide. It would hit her like a ton a bricks. I kind of liken it to if you were 4 and told you were adopted, but very loved it would be a lot more easier to grow up with that knowledge than it would be to be told at 12 years old that youve been lied to for 12 years... Do you know what I mean?? I'm not even sure if you can see the similarities in that example, but I find it hard to put in to words what im trying to get across.

√v^√v^√♥ - posted on 06/06/2011

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welcome. just make sure everyone you know, family and friend wise, that they are on board with what you are NOT going to tell your daughter. Tell them firmly how you stand on this matter and I hope they respect you in this. Good luck

Brittany - posted on 06/06/2011

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thanks girls. i too feel like allowing her to believe that it was a car accident isn't the right path to take, so i have casually said before "i don't think he had a car accident" and she would say "then what kind of accident was it" and i didn't have an answer so i would say "i don't know". i guess because i have never given her another response she just naturally reverts back to her original explanation that she created in her mind. i know that she will always be affected by this, but i'm afraid that if i hide it from her that she will eventually resent me for the lies. i know that at 5, this is NOT the time to tell her, but i know that day will come one day. I do like the idea of explaining it to her as if he was sick, that way i can expand upon it one day to the actual truth when i feel she is ready. i will probably try that. i am really worried about her right now because she is visiting her grandmother's house for the first time since he died and that is the last place she spent time with him and where his ashes are now. @holly, i will probably be contacting u later this evening. i'm not sure if i will be able to talk with ur father on the phone about this situation because i can't usually talk about it without crying. but hopefully we can email. thanks!

√v^√v^√♥ - posted on 06/05/2011

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She's going to have a scar and it won't come from you hun. I would correct her about the car accident part at least and tell her daddy didn't feel well and got ill and died? I think that would be an easier transition so that when she's a little older you can start to give her more details and then by the time she's about 12 you can start to explain more exactly what really happened. As I would be scared to tell a 5 year old about the nature of suicide too.



ill though.. she's going to want to know what type of illness... say a mental one as it is known as that usually right? Say he wasn't in a good mindset.. that he was very sad for too long of a time which isn't healthy for people?

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