Engaging Preschoolers in Difficult Times

Recently I was asked by a young widow to write and officiate a funeral for her 35-year-old husband who died suddenly and unexpectedly from an undiagnosed cancer. This woman has two young boys, 2 ½ and 4 years of age. I asked her if she wanted to include her boys in the ceremony but she felt that it wouldn’t be appropriate.  After the funeral however she contacted me and asked if I would do a special ceremony just for the boys at her home. She wanted them to remember this important transition in their lives.  She also wanted to help them understand that their daddy was gone so that they could begin their grieving process.

This was a very scary proposition for me.  While having had some experience working with adults to create ceremony and rituals to honor a loved one’s passing, creating a ceremony for very young children whose father had died presented a daunting challenge for me. I had never done anything like that before.  Of course, I told the widow that I would try to put together an appropriate ceremony for her to review and that, if we agreed that it would benefit her boys, I would come to her house and conduct it.

Talking with other celebrants in my network I discovered that no one had ever done such a ceremony.  After researching the Celebrant Foundation and Institute’s library, my certifying organization, I found no examples of creating memorial ceremonies for preschoolers who have lost a parent. I would be on my own.

In my work as a celebrant I am used to employing symbolic elements in ritual and ceremony.  I began to wonder how I could use symbols in this situation to convey meaning and ease the difficult task of talking about the death of their daddy with these boys. 

I knew that these boys would probably not want to talk about their daddy being dead.  I figured that they would be easily distracted and that they would hold in their feelings, especially with a stranger. How could I get them to open up, listen, and actively engage in talking about their daddy?

I also needed to know how this would make me feel.  At that moment I felt scared and woefully unprepared.  I knew I needed help.

The first thing I did was to search the internet for “explaining death to children.” One book stood out to me and I purchased it, Something Very Sad Happened, by child psychologist Amy Zucker, is a storybook intended to be read to two and three-year-old children to help them understand death and process the loss of someone close to them. I found it to be excellent and appreciated the suggestions given in the Afterword. I knew I could easily change the “Grandma” in the story to “Daddy”.

My second idea was to create a memory box containing items reminding me of my own deceased father and do a show and tell with the boys.  I would also bring two empty boxes and crayons, for each boy to engage in an activity of making their own memory boxes.

My instincts led me to what the most important object I would bring. Cheswick, my large stuffed bear, who would help me talk about the boy’s father with them. As I was to learn later this instinct served me well. According to the New York University Psychoanalytical Institute, a transitional object such as a child’s teddy bear may be conceived of as a defense against separation anxiety while being soothing and comforting for a child.

The widow reviewed my ceremony plans and agreed on it. So, armed with these symbolic elements, on the appointed day, I made my way to their home.  I was so nervous I had my wife drive me for the hour-long trip and kept Cheswick in my lap. He was very soothing!

The boys were excited to have a new visitor. They wanted to show me their toys and play.  They definitely did not want to talk about their father.  I made a special space on the floor by laying out a circle of rope and invited the boys to come and sit with me, but they would not join me. The 4-year old pointedly said, “I do not want to talk about my daddy”. 

None of my plans would have worked without Cheswick. Pretending to listen to the bear and then tell the boys what the bear was saying completely captivated them.  They went from distracted avoidance to agreeing to participate in whatever the bear suggested.  The show and tell of my dad’s memory box and the symbols it contained, the activity of coloring their own memory boxes, and the storybook reading all went as I had envisioned it.  The boys even began to open up and talk about their father.

As celebrants we employ tools and symbols in our work.  In this instance, Cheswick was going to be a tool, like the book, or the crayons, but instead became a symbol, like the memory box and its contents. Cheswick, it turns out, became the most important symbol I had for this challenging ceremony.

I will follow up with the boy’s mother in the weeks to come to see if the boys asked that the book be read again or if they have begun putting items in their memory boxes.  I’ll know then how successful the ceremony was.  In the meantime, I have gained confidence in doing ceremonies for preschoolers now. 

I believe that very young children are an important subset of grieving families, unfortunately they rarely benefit from the compassionate service that celebrants provide adults. They deserve specialized treatment and should not be overlooked in marking difficult events in the lives of their families. Going forward, I plan to offer separate ceremonies for preschool aged children, not just for funerals, but other life transitions such as divorce, relocations, blended families, and animal companion loss.