My husband's grandfather died last night. I casually mentioned it to my 3 year old son as we were leaving the house and he said " I don't want to wear my shoes" He really had no clue what I had told him.
Later in the night I asked him if he knew what dying meant. ( knowing he would say no)
I explained a little to him, how the body doesn't breathe anymore and that great grandpa would go to heaven.He got real quiet and was thinking and said..where are grandma's cats? ( both of my moms cat died last year) So I think he understands a little. I know most children don't have a full understanding of death until about age 9 I think.
How can I prepare him for the actual funeral and wake?
it may not bother him because he may not understand fully, but i would suggest having someone on standby to take him out or home if he gets upset. Is it going to be an open casket or anything like that? If he won't actually see his grandpa at the funeral then just explain to him that everybody who loved grandpa will be there and will be talking about him and that some people will be crying because they loved grandpa and will miss him. If there is going to be an open casket than explain to him that grandpa's body is sleeping and won't wake up, grandpa is in heaven and is watching over him. Let him know it's ok to cry and be sad, it's ok to miss grandpa, tell him stories about what him and his grandfather did, show him pictures. I find honesty is the best policy when it comes to children and death, you know your sons limits and stick within those. Let him grieve in any way he needs to and at 3 it may not seem to bother him at all just because he doesn't really understand.
We went through this when my cousin lost her 2 year old son to menengitis. My 4 year old was about to turn 3 when it happened. I found some things that really have helped us.
1. Death is not a permanent thing to a 3 year old so expect for them to ask where the person is and what happened at a later date. They also look at heaven based on their own experience of the world so it is easy for them to think that the person has just gone somewhere else
2.This is where it is important to watch what you say to them. The word "death" should be used instead of gone away or passed away. When you say those things, it adds to their expectation that the person will come back
3.They can have nightmares and mood changes while they figure it all out. They can become afraid that you will leave too. 3 year olds are limited to how things affect them. Their view of the world isnt that big so they can start to worry that they will die also.
4.The best bet is just to be honest and comforting. Answer questions to the best of your abillity but keep it simple. Personally, I have even told the truth about animals that when they die, they are just gone. We dont believe that animals have souls so it also helps them to see the difference in why people are so important to us.