Death can be a tricky thing to navigate. For my two kids, then one and two and a half, the loss of their grandfather, Bob, was the first major death close to them. Being so young, I didn’t feel either kid was old enough to grasp the concept of death, so we decided not to tell them exactly what happened. But, then our toddler started getting visits from Grandbob.
The first sighting came shortly after Bob’s death when my son spotted him in my parent’s living room. A few days later, Grandbob was at the top of our stairs. Next, he was in our family room. The sightings became regular as Grandbob would enter and exit our lives. Sometimes, these encounters would scare my son—he’d pull blankets over his head while begging me to tell Grandbob to go away—but other times he would laugh and say Grandbob was being silly.
Meghann Henderson, a child and adolescent registered psychotherapist at Pryor Linder and Associates in Oakville explains that “ghost sightings” can be common among kids aged 2 to 6. “When someone dies, especially a close family member, little ones don’t know how to cope and process,” says Henderson. “Adults can add to the confusion by saying things like: they’ll always be with you, you can talk to them even if you can’t see them, and they will watch over you.”
When kids try to navigate these opposing ideas, the explanation they come up with is a ghost.
Henderson says it’s important to validate your kid’s feelings regardless of your beliefs. “Parents often say things like ‘that’s all in your imagination’ instead of listening, empathizing, and being present for their child,” she says. “If it’s real for your kiddo, you should empathize and react as if it’s real so they feel validated.”
For older kids, ghost sightings can be linked to anxiety. “If the ‘seeing ghosts’ continues into the preteen years and it causes emotional distress or difficulty with peers (we would call these clinically significant impacts on a child), then my approach would be more of a clinical treatment approach as opposed to encouraging parents to validate and empathize with the child’s experience,” says Henderson.
But sometimes, there’s no explaining these sightings. Stephanie Sutherland’s three-year-old kept telling her she had a sister who she sometimes talked to. She even went as far as telling strangers that she had a dead sister. Sutherland had a chemical pregnancy before her daughter was born, but has never talked to her about it. Lindsay O’Neill had a similar experience when her son started seeing his Granny who he’d never met in his room, claiming that she had fallen down the stairs. O’Neill’s mother-in-law had passed away before he was born after complications from broken leg after she had a fall.
When it comes to whether ghosts are real, Henderson says it’s up to each individual parent to decide what they believe—or they can leave it up to the kid. “Children will typically make up their own minds one way or another regardless of what their parents say and this opinion may change over time as the child goes through different developmental stages.”
For now, the visits from Grandbob have stopped but they are something our now three-year-old remembers and reminisces about. He recently remarked how silly it was when Grandbob’s ghost used to visit him in the bathroom. Silly for him, maybe, but Grandbob’s visits kind of scared the crap out of me!