When our fish died, I was a little relieved because before that I was wracking my brain on how to answer the question that would inevitably come to me from my kids who are ages 5, 5, and 2: What happened to Daddy’s body when he died? Little kids are concrete thinkers so I knew I had to be careful on how I explained it…but how do you even explain it?? So when the fish died, I was like “Yes, finally, an example I can show them!” (Sorry Dory, R.I.P., we miss you.) So I scoop the fish out with a spoon and we carry him (Yes, Dory was a boy) out to the garden. I scoop out a little hole next to a pretty flower and plop him in it. I let the kids sprinkle dirt on Dory and when he was finally buried I put a rock on the spot so “we can always remember Dory” (and so Mommy can tell grandma not to dig Dory up in a few months…then that’d be a whole other addition to the lesson I was trying to teach.) The kids seemed unfazed by this ritual and wiped their hands on their pants and went back to playing after saying a quick “Bye, Dory” leaving me sitting alone looking at a rock feeling sad because of the fish and sad because it wasn’t the open door to questions that I thought. Maybe I was trying to hurry the questions to get them out of the way, for my sake, but I didn’t bring up Daddy and I didn’t bring up the questions myself, knowing, someday, they’d ask them and at least maybe it’d be sooner than later before they forget all about Dory in the garden.
My twin boys were only 2 when their Daddy died and so watching them process it a little differently as they get older is interesting and their increasingly intelligent inquisitions catch me off-guard at times. I got the question a lot, “Where is Daddy now?” but not a lot about his body, which was cremated, so trying to explain to kindergartners what cremation actually is freaked me out because I didn’t want to traumatize them further…thinking about it myself is traumatizing enough. Imagine my relief when I found a book that had the exact title I needed: What Happened to Daddy’s Body?: Explaining what happens after death in words very young children can understand by Elke and Alex Barber. “Oh thank you God,” I said to myself when I picked up the book. Perfect. A book can do this for me. I got other books too at the same time wanting to give the boys plenty of options to read them if they want when they felt ready. We’ve been through a lot of therapy options, but none that have really stuck, so I wanted to keep communication open especially since they’re getting older. When it was time to read stories, I brought out the book and read the title along with several other options not having anything to do with death, curious to see which one they would pick. They immediately pointed to What Happened to Daddy’s Body?: Explaining what happens after death in words very young children can understand.
So we began to read. It was exactly what I needed and worded exactly the way they needed to hear it. It not only covered cremation in-depth in an age-appropriate way, but also burial. When we go to the “hot oven and burning part” I flinched, bringing back a lot of painful triggers and memories for me, but I carefully watched them and they were intrigued, listening quietly. I stopped and asked, “Do you want me to keep reading?” They both nodded their heads ‘Yes.’ When we finished the book they asked, “Does our Daddy have ashes?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Can we see them?” they asked in unison.
“Yes, a little later though, it’s too late tonight.” I said. I tucked them in and we said our good nights and as I shut their door I breathed a sigh of relief.
The next day they asked several times if it was time to see Daddy’s ashes, “When your little sister goes to sleep,” I’d keep saying. When the time finally came, they were eager (and a little too excited, I thought) when I brought the plain white bag containing the heavy black box out of my closet. Throughout these two—almost three—years I spread a little of the ashes in special places whenever I feel I need to, but I have yet to spread them all, one day I’ll know when it will be time. Anyway, they looked in at the sandy white ashes and asked, “Can we touch them?” I let them and they gently touched them.
“That’s all of Daddy?” asked one of my boys.
“Well, not all, but it is a part of him. But remember how I said that God’s Bible says that we’ll never be separated from God? Not even death. So the part that really matters, what made Daddy who he is, is being taken care of by God.” I said.
The book referenced spreading ashes and having them become a part of the trees and flower and the rest of nature and so one of them asked, “So why are the ashes in this box? Why are they not becoming trees and flowers?”
I explained that I had a special plan and that some are already making the earth very beautiful with new flowers and trees, but I wasn’t ready to say ‘Good-bye’ to all of them yet and was waiting for them to get a little older so they could help me.
“Can we help you now?” they asked.
“I think so,” I said. They were satisfied and I put everything away and tucked them in. No tears, no freaked out recoiling and they taught me much more about death in that moment that I could have ever taught them. They had an understanding that I have been trying to push far away from me, an acceptance that I still haven’t totally come to and a peace that I have been searching for for years. It came so easy to them and I fell in love with them all over again for it.
If you are struggling with finding the words to talk to your very young children about the death of their parent, I’d highly recommend this book, What Happened to Daddy’s Body?: Explaining what happens after death in words very young children can understand by Elke and Alex Barber.
The only ‘con’ I found in it is that toward the end it went on to talk about the mom having a boyfriend with other kids and them becoming a family. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong about having that as a part of your story, but if you or the kids are not ready to get to that part, I’d recommend reading it by yourself first and skipping the parts that may not apply to you yet.
Some other books that have been helpful for us were not all pertaining to the death of a parent, but of grandparents or death in general, and I found it easy to change words so my kids could better relate to them. These are the other books we’ve read so far:
Which books have you found helpful to help your children understand grief and death? I’d love to know, please comment below!
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