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Explaining Life (and Death) to a Toddler

I began writing a piece about a month and a half ago about why, for a mom of 3 littles, the ‘Holiday Season’ is not always the ‘most wonderful time of year.’ It was to be cheeky and lighthearted. As in, “Why, oh why, can’t strangers stop offering my kids sweets/junk wherever we go?!” And why this year’s time change has been the worst ever. Not to mention the kids being sick (seemingly perpetually) since September, making my clothes and navy blue couches turn into what appears to be my children’s alternative for tissues. Lest we forget about the long lines–EVERYWHERE– and trying to decide whether or not to even bother with a Christmas tree this year, given that I now have 3 mobile monsters (adorable ones, of course!). 

Unfortunately life, or shall I say, death, got in the way. 

I always see these posts on Facebook and elsewhere espousing to be especially kind to those who have lost someone recently during the Holidays, as so many memories are made during this time of year and as such, it can be an especially painful time. I would like to add that losing someone during the Holidays is brutal. It throws everything off. I’m not saying that in a now-we-can’t-party kind of way, but in a this is meant to be a joyous and peaceful time. 

Yet, when a loved one is lost, it becomes anything but that. Which is all completely understandable, but not to a toddler. A toddler doesn’t understand why people are so sad and why various family get-togethers have been canceled. A toddler also doesn’t understand death. Not entirely. 

For my son, it was very difficult for him to understand why Nana was so upset and often sad. He also doesn’t quite understand why Daiee (Uncle in Farsi) is never coming back. 

As a parent, you are never prepared for when you are going to have to explain life, or in this instance, death. It is never easy talking about death and discussing it with a toddler is even more difficult. We didn’t want to overwhelm him or traumatize him. Equally, we didn’t want to sugarcoat it and make him even more confused; it really is a fine balance. 

In the end, we came up with something like this:

“Everything has a life: Trex (our neighbor’s dog), Nana’s plants, the birds in the trees, you, Mommy, Daddy, your brothers… everyone. Everything is “born” in some way. Trex was born from his mother as a puppy. Nana’s plants came from seeds that sprouted from the ground. The birds were born in a nest from eggs their mother laid. We come from our mommy’s belly. Everything grows up–just like the grass, the plants and your little brothers. Things also get too sick, or in really terrible accidents, or just get too old and they go away… forever. That’s called dying. It happens to everything. It’s not a happy thing, but it is part of life. Everything is born and and everything dies. We never know when it will be our time, so it is important to love the people in your life. That is why Nana is sad that her brother is gone. She loved him very, very much and she misses him. Nana will be happy again, it will just take time. So, it’s our job to love Nana even more to help her feel happier sooner.”

In the end, I think he got it. He’s a bright kid. I hope by showing him that it’s okay to grieve, to show empathy, and the importance of loving those important to you even deeper than before we will have better prepared him to deal with loss he may face in the future with grace and compassion. The end of 2016 was a trying one for my family, but I hope that you and yours enjoyed it to the fullest and wish everyone a happy and healthy 2017.

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3 Responses to Explaining Life (and Death) to a Toddler

  1. Melissa January 12, 2017 at 8:26 am #

    Love this Heather and love you friend. Great way to bring life into this when explaining to him death. My friend lost her husband recently and her daughter (4) told me while I was watching her that Daddy had a heavenly birthday. For those that believe in heaven, I thought that was such an amazing way to put it. Obviously her mom told her that, but what a great way to make death actually be turned into new life calling it a birthday.

  2. Melissa Fisher Goldman
    Melissa Fisher Goldman January 17, 2017 at 8:36 am #

    Heather. My condolences to your family. But also as a grief counselor I want to tell you your instincts were spot on. You used age appropriate language but also the real words like death and dying not sleeping etc. and you kept it short and sweet and in his time. Congrats!!! It may be a conversation you have to continue to have as he continues to develop and process but the hardest part is over. Your children are lucky to have you. You took the time to acknowledge their grief and needs during your own. ❤️

    • Heather Eftekhari
      Heather Eftekhari January 17, 2017 at 10:16 am #

      Thank you, Melissa Goldman. I’m glad to hear I said the ‘right things’!