“He went over the rainbow, honey.”
That’s what I told my 3 year old son when my father passed away. I had not prepared anything and had no clue how to even approach the topic but he was scared and worried so I had no choice, it was time.
My father passed away on November 8, 2012. It was 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, exactly one month before my son’s 1st birthday and only 1.5 months before Christmas. Even though my father had been ill for quite a long time, it still seemed to happen so fast. Even though I had been preparing myself for this moment since I was a teenager (when he had his first heart attack), I never prepared myself for how I would tell my children.
It was the day of the funeral. Somehow I was able to wait several days before I finally had to find the right words to explain to a 3 year old that his grandfather had passed away and was never coming back. So, I sat down at the bottom of the stairs at my moms house and did the best I could. As my mom and husband looked on from the kitchen, I somehow found the strength to explain to a toddler that his poppy was gone.
I can only explain it as an overpowering sensation as if my dad came and gave me the strength. I did not cry, and I did not stumble over my words. I calmly explained that poppy was very sick and had been for awhile. The doctors could not help him anymore so he went over the rainbow.
Now my son had visited my father in the hospital too many times to count during his short life. He was very aware that poppy was ill as I did not keep that a secret. But I never explained that he could die. I never said when the end would be. I’m sure it was because I was in denial but if I could go back and change anything it would be to better prepare my son for what was to come.
We are not a very religious family. Yes, the sacraments have been followed but church is not a Sunday tradition and bedtime prayers are not regular in our home. For families that have extreme faith this is easier to explain but for those of us that can’t use God or Jesus in the explanation, it gets tricky.
So how do you explain death to a 3 year old that has no idea what heaven is?
Well, you use what they know, and kids know rainbows. My son knows rainbows are in the sky and untouchable. He also knows they are beautiful and magical. For me, rainbows are a symbol of hope and new beginnings. It was a perfect choice. My son accepted my explanation with few questions (that day at least).
As a I walked away, I saw my mom, husband and sister crying. Why wasn’t I? I just told my son that his poppy, my father, was gone forever. Well, I’m a mom of course, and somehow, we find the inner strength to stay calm and strong for our children no matter how we are feeling inside. I wanted to curl into a ball on the floor and cry, but how would that help my son? This was a teachable moment, and I had to take advantage.
The days following consisted of many questions and comments including, “I wish Superman was real because then I could give him a cupcake to give to Poppy over the rainbow.” I was also asked, “Why do people go over the rainbow?” and told, “Promise you will never go over the rainbow.”
Obviously, it is hard to answer questions about death, but I did the best I could, and my son seemed to accept my answers. It also helped him to draw pictures of rainbows which he continues to do now. It also helped to look at pictures of poppy and talk about things we did with him. The best advice I can offer is to be there for your kids, and don’t be afraid to cry!
“God puts rainbows in the clouds so that each of us – in the dreariest and most dreaded moments – can see a possibility of hope.” – Maya Angelou