Talking to young children about a death a long time ago
April 11, 2019 6:32 PM   Subscribe

2.5 year old has started pointing to photographs of deceased family members and asking where they are. Not sure how to answer that at this point.

My Googlefu has only turned up stuff about how to explain a recent death to a little child (e.g. “Why is Aunt Sally sad?”) I haven’t found anything that specifically addresses a death in the past.

So far, I have been answering questions like “Where is Grandma?” with stuff like “Grandma is in the picture in your room.” But as he has a deceased parent, I imagine this is going to come up more often than it might in some families as he figures out that most of his peers have dads. So I’d like to figure out how to address this. I’m concerned that if I introduce the d-word with a child his age he is not going to understand it and is just going to go around saying it to everyone (grandparents, teachers etc.) and making them upset.
posted by ficbot to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Kids are remarkably practical at this age. I would say she died, and death is when your body stops working. She used to be alive and now she isn’t.

Like my cat died at home a couple months ago and my 3yo barely blinked.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:40 PM on April 11, 2019 [24 favorites]

Seems to me that the gain for your child from having a parent who gives honest and straightforward answers to life's biggest questions outweighs any temporary upset his two and a half year old utterances might cause for people in his orbit.

Also, if this topic is important to him he's going to talk about it to all of those people regardless of what you tell him, so you might as well make sure that what he says doesn't leave them feeling obliged to support some elaborate fantasy they've not been informed about beforehand as well as upsetting them.

As a culture we make way way way too much of a taboo out of talking about death. It's a pity that we all have to die, but I fail to see what we gain by blowing that simple fact up into something so apparently huge and frightening that it can't even be discussed.
posted by flabdablet at 6:48 PM on April 11, 2019 [17 favorites]

To risk stating the obvious—I would work on figuring out what you want to communicate about what happens (or doesn’t) after death, even if that’s “people disagree and we’re not sure.”

You could always say something like, “Aunt Sally died, so she isn’t here with us anymore. But even though she’s not alive and here with us, we can still remember her. When I miss her, I just think about her and that makes me feel happy. Do you want to hear a story about Aunt Sally? One time she and Grandma”...etc. This could be a good bridge for telling stories about his dad, or for a way to talk about when he misses having a dad.
posted by sallybrown at 7:03 PM on April 11, 2019 [16 favorites]

I’m sure everyone here will have wise kind thoughts about how to explain death at an appropriate level for a two year old but I would just say that it’s very kind of you to be worried about his upsetting people but that is on them if they let *a toddler* saying the word “dead” get to them and should not be a burden you take on.
posted by sestaaak at 7:05 PM on April 11, 2019 [44 favorites]

Yep, just very straightforward and honest. They may ask about it for a couple of days or they might not.

Answer all his questions but don’t get too detailed.

Don’t say that death is like going to sleep and never waking up.

It can feel weird at first. One thing that helps me is to say the thing and then follow up with “she sure would have loved watching you jump” or “you would’ve loved her sugar cookies”.

For the dad thing: “all families are different. Some have one mom, some have one dad, some have two moms, etc.” (then as he grows, “every family has different rules ...”)

Keep practicing and it’ll make your relationship stronger as he grows.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:07 PM on April 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

Try to end on a positive note. Like if they ask if a heart attack hurts, don't just say "yes" and just leave it at that.
posted by rhizome at 7:10 PM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ooof. Is there a local support group for widowed parents or anything like that? Because I don't think this is really a straightforward question about how to address death with toddlers. I think there's a ton of subtext about how to address one particular death with this particular toddler. And you are going to need to tell your kid that he had a father and his father died. You are going to need to let your kid talk about that, even if it's upsetting to him and you and to other people in his life. You are going to need to let your kid ask all of his questions, even if you don't have good answers for them. (And none of us have good answers for them.) This is shitty. It is terribly unfair that your kid has to deal with this burden, just like it's terribly unfair that you have to deal with it. But avoiding it is not going to make it any better. But it sounds like you could use some support and understanding as you negotiate this, and I'm wondering who is providing that for you right now.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:16 PM on April 11, 2019 [19 favorites]

My kids had definitely heard the words "dead" and "kill" by that age and it didn't feel inappropriate to me. I think they understood the concept pretty well because they had seen for themselves what it meant to be dead when we came across dead bugs, worms, birds, or animals. If my kid stepped on a bug and squashed it I wasn't afraid to say, "It's dead. You killed it."

They didn't go around talking about death to everyone; they rarely mentioned it. I do remember my daughter, at 2 1/2 or 3, making a Fisher-Price mom jump on a little wooden giraffe, murmuring to herself, "That kills it," and then laying it on the table where the Fisher-Price family was seated, murmuring, "Cut off the meat, cut off the meat." It was both creepy and adorable. And once when my husband said, "Maybe someday we'll have a basement," my 3 year old son remarked, "Someday we will all die." If you think people you know would find that kind of thing deeply upsetting, maybe you should hold off on bringing up death, but I expect most people would take it in stride or laugh. Of course it's going to bring up a lot more emotion if your kid is talking about his dead parent, but I doubt that's going to happen much. Kids are mainly interested in what is happening to them now.

Probably the most natural way to bring up death is just to talk about dead things you see in daily life. I would go ahead and start using the d-word when you swat a mosquito or see a dead raccoon by the road and once you think your kid gets the idea I would start using the word for people who are dead. I personally don't think 2 1/2 is too young to learn that everyone dies someday. I think it probably has less of an emotional impact to learn it when you're still too young to care much.
posted by Redstart at 7:27 PM on April 11, 2019 [9 favorites]

Simplest answer to the question of "Where is Grandma?" would be "Grandma is dead. She isn't here any more [but we have her picture right here. Do you to hear a nice story about Grandma?] Don't answer more than they ask.

When the kiddo says, "Why" You can say some version of "[something happened] and her body stopped working and she died".

"Where is she now?" This one will really depend on your own answers. I might say something like "Grandma is with God." Someone else might say, "She is all gone." or "She is gone but after her body stopped working and she didn't need it anymore, we put it in a special place (the cemetery)."

"Will she come back?" or "Can we go see her" - "No but I like to look at her picture"

But for a parent, I think it is really important that a child have a story about where they came from. I have no idea what the story is but if there is a reason to believe that the father loved the child (even if unborn) or would have loved the kid if he had known, it is really important for the kid to know that. Similarly, assuming the father was a reasonable person, talking to the kid in positive ways about their father and the ways that they might be like their father or their father might have been proud of them is nice. Obviously some people can go too far and do this in ways that deny the child's individuality or creates an unreasonable standard to live up to but a sense of positive connection with a parent (even one absent from their life) is better than a blank page.

Just like children who are adopted, being open and having a positive, loving story about their family that gets told from a young age is easier than having a big reveal at some later age. If there are harsh things in story, you don't have to include all the facts, just enough to help them make sense of their world.
posted by metahawk at 9:31 PM on April 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

When my child was 2 or 3, death was a topic that came up fairly often in preschool, among her play group, etc. They would see a dead bird or squirrel, or a pet would die, they would hear about a grandparent dying or look at pictures of deceased relatives, etc. and they would try to make sense of it. The most important thing was to give a straight, simple, neutral-toned answer that made death seem natural -- whatever you believe in. But no matter what you say there is no way the magical thinking of preschool is going to comprehend it as you yourself do. They are practical but also magical in their thinking. These are a few of the glimpses into toddler minds that I remember from preschool kids I knew well who had been told very sensible explanations about death.
1. One child started rhymically tapping a chair "to make no one die."
2. One child, who loved dinosaurs and had been read books about species extinction, told me his dog had "died out."
3. Another 3 year old kid was told that dead people are "in heaven." She told me after learning her dog died that he was "at Kevin's."
4. My 3 year old nephew was told that someone we knew had died. He said "Did he get killed by swords?"
5. My 2 year old kid -- who had been taught that death is when the body stops working and you remain alive as a memory with people who love you, after you get very old -- was told someone had died. He said "He didn't eat his food?"
So, lay the groundwork for your own belief system, try to make it un-scary or mystified, and then don't expect a 2 year old to get it.
posted by nantucket at 9:41 PM on April 11, 2019 [11 favorites]

I would not bring it up out of the blue if it’s not something they’ve directly lived through or are asking about, but generally when a child has questions about a difficult topic it means they are ready for some information about that topic. Be as honest as possible, true to what you believe about death, in words that that your child can understand. If you believe in heaven then fine, grandma’s in heaven. But it’s also ok to say “You know, I don’t really know what happens when we die, some people believe X, some people believe Y but I do know I loved grandma so much when she was here with us and she is still in my heart and in my memory every day. What do you think happens?”

If the question comes “will you die?” Or “will I die?” the answer is “Every living thing dies eventually, that is the way of life. I don’t think you/I will die for a very very long time and I am going to love you and protect you with all of my heart for as long as I live.” And when the talk is over, make sure you ask “Do you have any questions?” so they know this is a topic for ongoing discussion.

Honestly, you will be amazed at how fast your child goes back to playing with their toys like nothing happened.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:17 PM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Do you have any religious views on what happens after death? Then talk about those. Explain that the body stops working and then go into what happens to the person.

If you are a non-believing person, like me, you‘re in for several years of discussions that sound suspiciously like Monty Python‘s dead parrot sketch. I have never been able to convey what „to stop existing“ means. They just can‘t understand the concept. And believe me, I’ve been extremely blunt, never having worried about upsetting any adults. They‘re 5 and 8 years old, now.

I don‘t know if you‘ve seen the MF post, but Austrian parents have a Lego set available to help them explain death.
to their children.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:37 PM on April 11, 2019

When children learn that death is a thing, they may worry that Mom or Dad will die. That could happen, but, reassure them.

My kid learned about death about 2.5/3 when a great-grandparent died. Afterwards they would intermittently ask things like "will I die?" and "who will die first, you or me?". It takes some time for them to process the stuff about death and questions will pop up days after you think they're done thinking about it. I just answered along the lines of "every body dies but usually only when they get very old, I will probably die before you but not for a long, long time."
A few years later and my kid is fine discussing death - recently he saw a photo of another great-grandparent and asked "oh, is he dead now?" in a calm, matter of fact way.

Avoid explaining death by saying:
"it's like going to sleep" (kid might think going to sleep means they might die)
"they've gone away" (they might come back?)
"we lost [person]" (can we find him again?)
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:16 AM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yes, really don’t worry about upsetting people. I think everyone knows kids are curious about this stuff, and if they’re offended, that’s on them. I knew someone who was widowed with young children and her son had a toy coffin he used to carry around with him, (given to him by a kids’ bereavement charity to help him understand through play what had happened), and would talk about death and what happens after a LOT - it was their way of getting through bereavement.

She was shocked at the lack of resources for little kids in this situation, so ended up writing a picture book to explain it, called Is Daddy Coming Back In A Minute?. It’s partly about sudden death and grief, so might not match your little guy’s experience exactly. But IIRC it also touches on things you might find useful now or later, like understanding what happens to bodies after death, dealing with the fear that people they love might die, etc. So that might be worth you checking out, either to read with him, or to look at yourself for ideas of how to approach these things. Best of luck.
posted by penguin pie at 2:00 AM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

My partner and I each lost a parent, as well as a sibling, shortly after our young kid's birth, and I too have found that it's difficult to know quite how to frame things. Our biggest challenge isn't even just figuring out which words to use, but in coping with the little one (seemingly-)randomly bringing up their deceased grandparents/aunt and wanting to have big repetitive circular discussions about them having died. We know it's important, and we know this is how children learn and process, but sometimes having grief inadvertently dug up and poked at like that is really hard or even too much. We try to set gentle but firm boundaries when we're not feeling up to having an academic discussion about why our beloved parents are dead, and to encourage each of the surviving grandparents to do the same.

I do also think you're correct that he's on the cusp of noticing his peers having dads, and, in my experience, him processing that might also be a process that inadvertently maims you emotionally. Our child has two parents, but not "mom and dad," and they sometimes play at having what they see modeled in so many peers and in so many books, no matter how many counterexamples we try to provide. It can be hard to remember that they don't intend their words to carry the same meaning an adult or even a significantly older child might.

On the possibility of him upsetting other people by talking about this: to me that seems like a "comfort in/dump out" kind of issue. Apart from his dad's other immediate family, including you, nobody else has as much of a claim on having feelings about this as your kid. You can of course help him learn what's socially appropriate and how to navigate other people being flummoxed by a young child having a deceased parent, but he should be able to talk about his dad if he wants.
posted by teremala at 4:47 AM on April 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

Oh - and there was a follow up to Elke's book, which might also be useful, called What Happened to Daddy's Body?. Looks like the wee toy coffin features on the cover, in Alex's hand.
posted by penguin pie at 5:02 AM on April 12, 2019

Yeah, simple responses that then can be further elaborated on if there are questions. “She’s dead and no longer with us” is fine. Kids that age ask the same question over and over to see if there’s a consistent answer and to build trust so just be honest and straightforward. This will go a long way in building a strong relationship between you. The child will likely still have no idea what death really is but that will come much later.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 6:49 AM on April 12, 2019

I am writing this comment surrounded by child therapists and this topic came up. This book has been mentioned by several of them as helpful. It's a way to help your child deal when the time comes, and as others have said I would encourage you to find support for yourself too, professional or otherwise. Our culture pathologizes grief BUT grief can also get "complicated" making it more challenging to get through so working through grief with someone can help you "grieve well" and part of that means you'll start to have a better sense of how you want to negotiate with your child and perhaps overcome the avoidance that might be going on here.
posted by crunchy potato at 7:41 AM on April 12, 2019

We lost our first child and so when my son was about the age of yours, he started asking about her photos. For us, it was a much more straightforward path to include him in our family's history, which includes for us celebrating her birthday, honouring her life on her death day by visiting her grave, and keeping pictures around.

That did mean we had to talk about death once he asked for the details (which was a bit later), and we read The Death Book numerous times -- we are a family that errs on the side of too much information, so be aware that this book follows in that genre.

My son did mourn her loss, especially as at the time he was an only child, and he bitterly felt that other children's older siblings lived. (After we had our second, I think he got that his sibling wouldn't have been as ideal as he'd pictured. :)) My second child also has learned about his sibling all along, but has felt it less, possibly because he has an older sibling right there. In fights he has occasionally told his older brother "well you're not REALLY the oldest!"

I was touched at how legitimate his grief was and in a strange way the way my children have included her has made me feel stronger as a family, that we encompass all of us, living and dead. But it wasn't easy and I was glad I had the support I needed. I agree with an earlier comment that I wonder if your own grief is a factor in your discomfort here and I hope you find a way to hold the conversation that works in the context of your family and your own days.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:01 AM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I imagine this is going to come up more often than it might in some families as he figures out that most of his peers have dads. So I’d like to figure out how to address this. I’m concerned that if I introduce the d-word with a child his age he is not going to understand it and is just going to go around saying it to everyone (grandparents, teachers etc.) and making them upset.

this is strange to me. He does have a father, but his father is dead. he will need to know this whether or not it comes up in his peer group. you could still wait a bit, I don't think there was any need to try to explain that to him before he had enough language to understand and remember it, but he does now or will pretty soon. The people whose feelings of distress you should worry about are his and yours, especially yours. and I think it is all right to put your feelings just barely ahead of his, just for now. If it upsets you to hear your son talking blithely about his dead dad, without any emotional gravity, that is a fair reason to postpone the conversation for a little while. but with honesty and respect, grandparents already know and strangers will not care. there is nobody who needs protecting from this knowledge. and keeping quiet about his father's death so that adults won't be made uncomfortable is not a lesson he should have to learn.

I say this as a former young child of a dead father -- I was four when mine died, so although I do remember being informed when he died, I don't remember him and I also don't remember ever being confused about what death was. If the concept had to be explained to me, it happened well before that and that learning, in and of itself, left no scars.

if this is very painful and difficult for you to talk about with him, that is a real and important issue; it doesn't have to affect anybody else to matter. you can enlist other family members to help talk to him about it if that makes it easier. the only other thing I can add is that while it's often good advice to only answer the questions a child asks, it is also true that a child usually has very good intuition for what questions are forbidden and what questions make his mother sad. so while it will be fine to either explain now or wait a bit, don't assume that if he doesn't press for details about his father, he's necessarily not interested.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:16 AM on April 12, 2019 [8 favorites]

I don't remember my daughter asking questions about death, dying or dead people although it must have come up because my father died a long time ago so there would have been some questions. My son, who is 4 now, will periodically ask questions about death, or what happens if you fall from an airplane and I give him fairly straight answers. He'll think about it and sometimes there'll be additional questions but it doesn't freak him out. They've been to a couple of funerals too. I'm generally not worried about talking to my kids about death but they've been watching an anime, One Piece, and are a week or two away from Ace's death and I'm sure they both will be a bit of upset about that.

Last year some kids in my daughter's class were talking about Pennywise the clown and since that time she doesn't like going to her room by herself. So kids talking about a scary clown has had a bigger impact on her then any conversations we've had about real people who have died.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:58 AM on April 12, 2019

My mother died long before my kids were born and when my oldest was 2.5yrs old we talked about it and I said she was dead with some explanation similar to "that's when your body stops working." Though I think he already knew what dead meant. I also said "Some people think after you die your spirit goes to heaven. What do you think?" and we had a conversation about that.
posted by selfmedicating at 3:03 PM on April 12, 2019

Don’t lie about death.* It’s central, real, and important to having any sense of perspective on life.

I have never understood treating death as a taboo subject with young people. Pets die, people die, bugs die, houseplants die, germs die. What’s happened shouldn’t be a scary secret.

I have children, and they have had pets who died and family members who have died. By now they’re even aware that one day their mother and I will be no longer be alive, and that they therefore will either learn to pick up after themselves without prompting or live in eternal squalor.

See also: Where do babies come from?

You owe your child honest answers.

* Including lies of omission.
posted by Construction Concern at 8:28 AM on April 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

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