Talking with 3 year old about death of his father
Dear Dr. Laura,
When my oldest son was 19 months old his father was killed by a drunk driver. He's now 3 years old going on 4 and knows his father's picture when he sees it and knows that daddy is in heaven with angels. Lately though he's started asking if he could go to heaven to see his daddy.
I'm personally still a wreck over the accident and am not sure how I should be discussing his fathers death with him especially since I usually start to cry. Should I keep talking to him about his daddy or should I be holding off until he is older?
Also another concern I have is his father had a mental illness and I wasn't sure if I should be having my son seen to see if he also may have it. Since his fathers death I have been thinking at some point he might need to see a therapist or someone to help him understand why his father died and to handle the grieving if he needs to but, should I start him now or wait till he is older?
First, let me say how sorry I am about your loss. I suffered a similar loss myself and know how devastating it is.
Second, it is fine, even desirable, for you to talk often to your son about his dad, even if that makes you cry. But don't focus on the accident. What your son needs to hear is all your stories about what a wonderful man his dad was, and how his dad would be very proud of him. If there are positive ways that your son is like his dad, be sure to point them out.
Don't dwell on heaven, or it is natural that your son will want to go there. After all, he wants to meet his dad. Be clear with him that nobody knows what happens when we die, but you believe that souls go to heaven, and that someday he will meet his dad in heaven, but first he has to have a full and happy life. If you want more ideas on how to talk with him, I recommend the book "How Do We Tell the Children? A step-by-step guide for helping children two to teen cope when someone dies" by Dan Schaeffer, PhD & Christine Lyons. There are also a lot of other wonderful books recommended here on my site, to read with children and to help you talk with children about death.
Third, I want to suggest that you find some counseling support yourself to work through your own grief. It is normal to still feel very sad about your loss two years later, but your statement that you are "still a wreck" is not healthy, for you or for your son. When the loss first happens, it is as if your entire life is consumed with it. Over time, the loss still maintains its pain and poignancy, but it takes up less of your life, so that it is maybe a quarter of the pie instead of the whole pie. Over time, the size of the slice gets smaller and smaller, so that it dominates your life less and less. It sounds to me like you have not fully grieved this loss and it is still dominating your life, and that is not good for you or for your son.
When we suffer a loss like this one, we have a choice to make. Will we stay wrecked, at least inside? Or will we commit ourselves to healing and full aliveness? You don't have the luxury of staying wrecked, because you have a responsibility to your son to heal yourself and move on.
As much as we want to, parents can't protect their children from the harsh realities of life. All we can do is give them the message that they are safe in the world and that the world is a good place. How do we do that? By modeling that we honor our grief (and all other emotion) and then moving on, by embracing life.
My prescription, therefore, is to do whatever grieving you need to, even while you help your son to process his own feelings. Draw pictures together of him and his dad. Frame a photo of his Dad for his wall. Plant a tree on his dad's birthday (and by the way, focus on the date of Dad's birthday, not the date of his death.) Every year, light a candle on his dad's birthday and honor his loss. Psychology – talking, feeling and re-enacting – is a first step in healing, but humans also need ritual, and spiritual meaning, if we are to emerge whole from the inevitable losses of life. Give yourself and your son these healing rituals, and give yourself a grief counselor to speak with, and you will find yourself more whole and able to be fully present for your son.
Besides healing yourself, these rituals will be helpful to your son. There is no reason that he needs to see a therapist for a loss that happened before he could talk, as long as he is not showing evidence of any problems. Your grief, if it impacts your ability to be responsive to him, would be much more of a risk factor for his development, which is why I recommend that you find counseling for yourself.
As far as any genetic mental illness goes, there is no reason to have your son assessed unless he shows evidence of having any problems. There's a good chance (at least 50%, and probably much higher, depending on the illness) that your son didn't inherit the genetic predisposition to the illness, and even if he did, good parenting on your part can modify the way those genes play out and reduce the severity of any symptoms.
You don't want to give your son the message that life is dominated by accidents and leaves one a wreck. You want him to know that life is full of mysterious twists and turns but always great love. That death makes life, and love, even more meaningful. That together the two of you can make it through anything. That it's a friendly universe. And that you will always be there for him, no matter what.