(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)
How can I tell my young daughter that her dad died?
(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)
Dr. Kenner: I want to welcome Elise to the show today. You're in a horrible situation right now I heard? Tell me what happened.
Elise: I'll give you a short history. My child's father was recently incarcerated for four years. We were going to be together but it was a better choice not to be together. He just recently was released from prison and wasn't making very good decisions, wasn't really taking a stance to better himself. I received a call at 4:30 this morning that he was murdered. Left on the freeway and when the police found him, he was pronounced dead at the scene. I wanted to know how to break this to my 4-year-old. She's 4 and quite intelligent, but I'm not exactly sure how to go about this. I just don't know.
Dr. Kenner: What have you thought of doing. What's crossed your mind? You know her very well.
Elise: I've really just thought about sitting her down and asking her what she knows. She soaks in a lot. She watches a lot of TV. She hears a lot. She listens to a lot. I was thinking about asking her what she knows about heaven or what she knows about people not being with us anymore and what she would say from there and take it from there, but I'm not exactly sure how to do it or what to say.
Dr. Kenner: Understandable. When you say she watches a lot of TV, has she seen a death or has she even in comics - Bugs Bunny or something - or has she had a pet that died? What's her experience?
Elise: We had a pet that was taken away. We took her to the SPCA, but all she knew was that the pet was at the doctor. She didn't know that the pet had passed away or anything like that.
Dr. Kenner: The pet never returned though? What did she say about that?
Elise: It's been a while, but she still believes that the pet is still at the doctor.
Dr. Kenner: So one of the things that kids have to come to terms with is the very painful fact of death. When you have an out-of-sequence death, meaning it's not a timely death. When you're 95-years-old and you die, man, you were lucky. You got to live a long life. But when you have a life that's cut short this way and when there are complicated factors, meaning he made bad choices and she has not been with him routinely I'm assuming, what has her contact been with her?
Elise: Her father's side of the family is really filled with pictures and stories and everything. Who he was. But as far as her being around him, personally, she had only been around him about four or five times, and the majority of those times, as far as I know, was with her aunt or her grandmother present. It was never alone.
Dr. Kenner: Okay, so did you not trust him?
Elise: Not really, because to me, he wasn't really making any good decisions.
Dr. Kenner: What was he put in jail for?
Elise: Two counts of robbery. He had two strikes.
Dr. Kenner: Armed robbery?
Dr. Kenner: This is awful to say, but when you lose an incredibly wonderful father, it's horribly sad. When you lose a person who may not have been a good influence in her life, to think that that was her father, it's a different type of a loss. I don't know how to delicately say that. But to have a person who would use a gun to rob people and threaten their life, may not have been the best person to have with your child. It also sounds like she has not been close with him. What man has she been close with? Is there a grandpa or an uncle or a teacher?
Elise: I've had a live-in boyfriend for the last year and a half, two years.
Dr. Kenner: He's a better guy?
Elise: A lot better.
Dr. Kenner: Does she call him daddy at all?
Elise: She did when she was younger. She's been around him for a little while. But honestly, I believe that when she would go to her father's side of the family, they would keep her from saying it. So she's gotten into the groove of calling him by his first name.
Dr. Kenner: Her father?
Interviewee: Her father, she would call him daddy, but she would call my boyfriend dad and then she would go out there and as she'd start coming back home, she'd start calling him by his first name.
Dr. Kenner: In any case, let me sum this up. What I'm hearing is that it's a horrific loss to hear that anyone was murdered and to present this to a 4-year-old child, I think that you're on the right track in saying to her, "What do you know?" Trying to get her context. But I think it would be perfectly fine to just say - you don't have anything like a goldfish that died or something like that, right?
Dr. Kenner: If you had something like that, you could say, "They don't live forever and it's very sad. And daddy died." I mean, I would just say that daddy died. You don't have to go into the graphic details at the age of 4, but daddy died and however, he was hurt and died. Let her ask questions. Let her take the lead. Because it's not like he was in her life everyday, so it will be emotionally easier for her probably than it is for you. The things not to do are to tell a child, "Don't cry. Get over it. There, there, it'll be better." That's obviously denying their feelings. You have to meet the child where they're at. Children go through very different emotions when they go through a loss. Sometimes they're tearful. Sometimes they're angry. If you have religion in the picture, sometimes they're very angry at God or whatever particular God it is. Sometimes they feel guilty and they're trying to pray to God to bring him back. Kids go through all contortions. My goal is to keep it reality-based, which is just to say that he did die, it's very sad. If she does miss him. If she doesn't miss him, if she doesn't really know who he was, then you don't have to make a big deal out of it.
There's a book called Everett's Loss, where he loses a dad, I think. It's been a while. It's a little kid's book about the loss of a dad and the different emotions this little boy goes through. That's assuming a close dad. You have an unusual situation where she wasn't that close. You may want to get some therapy for yourself, just to go through this type of trauma. Even if you weren't close to him, just to process it. I hope that helps.
Elise: It did.
Dr. Kenner: I want to give you a hug, because it's sad, even though it doesn't sound like he had the best character and it's probably better to not have him in your life, but not this way. I'm Dr. Ellen Kenner, on The Rational Basis of Happiness.