Lee & I have found that Connor learns best through life experiences. Not just about that particular thing that he's experiencing, but he seems to create new pathways in his brain when things are different from normal. We try to get him out to different places to do different things as much as possible.
He's a pretty smart little guy. On the way up to Canada last Thursday, we decided to drive up along the 97, which is the inland route. So just before Portland, we headed east, along the Columbia river. Connor panicked a bit, he was sure we were going somewhere else and we wouldn't get to have the "flying car" over the bridge. We told him what was going on, but he wasn't sure about it. It wasn't until we crossed over the Columbia at the Dalles that he was really okay again. Then there was new scenery to watch, and he was fine. In fact, only Connor and I are completely awake when we do these 12-14 hour drives. Everyone else snoozes here & there in the car but us.
We used the idea of transformation to help Connor understand why my dad isn't around anymore. Connor has always been interested in things turning into something else, whether it's in a Disney movie (like in the Little Mermaid, where the evil Ursula erupts out of her disguise into her many-tentacled real body) or if it's a life cycle of a frog (Connor sings about the frog laying eggs, eggs turns into a tadpole, tadpole turns into a frog - like a transformation!).
Lee and I both spoke with Connor about Opa's transformation. He left his body behind, and transformed into "like an angel" (a soul was too hard to describe) and now he's in Heaven. We won't see him here anymore because once you get to Heaven, you can't come back to visit.
I was actually looking for a book to help Connor visualize this - there's one called Waterbugs & Dragonflies that describes the transformation and helps young kids understand that when we are all the waterbugs, we can't see anything beyond our pond. Once we transform to dragonflies, there's a huge new world out there, but we can't come back into the pond anymore.
Connor did very well at the memorial for my dad. He stayed nice and quiet through all the readings & did well with the reception afterward. He had a Captain Underpants book to read. He got that people were sad, and he even dabbed a hanky at his eyes during the service, although I did not see him cry. He's pretty empathetic though, and I could see he knew this was a 'big' thing.
Once we were all home again, my mom was resting in her room with Connie & me. Connor was playing in between the beds (they were pushed together). Out of the blue, Connor asked, "Why is Opa dead?"
This was the first time I've ever heard him ask a "why" question. Who, what, when, where are a lot more concrete & easier to point out. "Why" is much more abstract and takes a better cognitive understanding of language that we hadn't seen from Connor before.
Lee & I realized we hadn't addressed why Opa had died. We wanted Connor to be aware that he was gone, but we didn't go into the details.
So Omi told him that Opa was very sick, and he couldn't get better, so he died. Connor said, "Go to the doctor. The doctor will fix it." Omi explained that Opa was too old, and the doctor couldn't make him better anymore. Connor then said, "Opa was very brave." (Lee had told Connor he was brave when he got his foot stitched up).
I reiterated that Opa did the transformation to like an angel, and then Connor went back to playing between the bed.
He never once asked where Opa was, and he didn't look for him anywhere.
So we think he got it.