Explaining Death to a Toddler

Potentially Problematic

Explaining Death to a Toddler

When I learned I was having a child, I didn’t think about the moment I would have to explain to them what death is. I read baby books on breastfeeding and bath times and routine, but there was never a section on what to do when they start looking for grandma or grandpa. 

My daughter had just turned one when my mother passed away, and while dealing with all the emotions of grief, I was grateful that she was too young to understand what was happening. She didn’t recognize the tears and family gathering around her. I was grateful for that innocence at a time when there didn’t seem to be anything good, and I pushed away the thought of having to explain anything to her because she was still so young. 

I didn’t think about what would happen as she got older. 

As the years passed, I got accustomed to the memories and not having my mother around. Through pictures and stories, I kept her memory alive. The time my daughter spent with my mother, while very short, is still one of my favorite memories – even if those times may never surface in my child’s mind.

Then, one day when my daughter was three, she looked at that same picture of her and my mother that she had been seeing every day and finally asked the question I had been unknowingly dreading; “Where is my Ma?”

The question rocked my world and even though a part of me had been waiting for it, I was not prepared with an answer. I stared at my daughter blankly because how do you tell a three-year-old that someone she loves is dead? What does dead even mean in the mind of a child? How do you begin to explain that grandma is gone and is not coming back? 

I tried to remember what my mother had told me when my grandparents passed away, hoping she would impart some wisdom from beyond the grave. But all I could get out was, “She’s dead.” I was met with a look of confusion, which I’m sure matched the look of terror on my face, but as toddlers do, she quietly went on about her business. 

I let out a deep sigh of relief and decided to turn to my close family for an answer, but they were coming up blank too. 

How do you tell a three-year-old that someone she loves is dead?

A few days later, once again catching me completely off guard she asked, “What does dead mean?” 

I had been stewing on our previous conversation and had come up with nothing, so at that moment I made the decision to just be completely honest. 

I told her that it meant Grandma went to sleep and would never wake up, that her body stopped working and she is not able to come back to us. My sister, the lifesaver, chimed in with “but she is watching over you and will always be in your heart loving you.” 

That seemingly intense short conversation was enough to settle her inquiring mind.

Over the next few weeks, she told everyone she knew how grandmother, her Ma, was dead. Some people were shocked while others had a chuckle at the fact that she confused passing away with passing out. She added some extra information about how Grandma now lived on the moon and was a star. 

I was grateful for all of these conversations. They all taught her in one way or another that talking about her grandmother and by extension, death, was not a bad thing. 

I wish I could say it was all sunshine and daisies after that but there was one more question that threw me for a loop: “How did she die?” This time I had the confidence to keep it simple and say, “She got really sick and her body couldn’t keep up anymore.”

Only this time when I was calm and collected, my daughter’s face was one of pure horror. Her next words showed me the error of my ways as she asked “If I get sick will I die too?” 

My heart shattered while I tried not to laugh at my complete lack of awareness at that moment. I spent quite a while after profusely apologizing for scaring her while I explained that her beloved grandma was extremely sick and was in the hospital while hoping she understood that getting a cough wouldn’t kill her.

While this experience was a rollercoaster that I did not know how to navigate at the start, it was a great experience in parenting. It led my partner and I to make the ultimate decision to always be honest with her (while also being very clear so she doesn’t think she’s on death’s door when she has a fever). As she gets older and the questions get deeper, we will continue on this journey of honesty, including explaining to her our own emotions and how we navigate life through difficult experiences like death of a loved one. 

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