How To Explain Death To Your Toddler

14/07/2017 15:29
Tara Moore via Getty Images

"I wanna talk to Grandma! I wanna talk to Grandma!"

It's infrequent, but it happens more than I realised it would. My three-year-old son slams himself down on the sofa in a huff whilst I catch my breath. Again. Then, he looks at me and says,

"Grandma died."

"Yes," I tell him. "Grandma died. We can talk to Grandma whenever we want to, but we have to talk to her picture now, instead of the computer. And Grandma can't answer us anymore. But that's okay."

My husband and I made a plan of what we were going to tell our toddler after my mother died suddenly this spring. We Googled a bit, but between buying plane tickets and planning her funeral in the United States from my living room in central England, we frankly didn't have a lot of time for research. We agreed not to use words like "sleeping" or to dwell too much on the connection between illness and death lest he should become afraid of these everyday words. Though he had spent time physically with my mother, his relationship with her existed mostly via Skype. Two cameras and five time zones forged the bond between this little boy and his Grandma.

As he had gotten older and cheekier, he didn't sit still for long enough to have conversations with my mother the way he used to when he was very small. A year ago, they would still play peek-a-boo and make funny faces at one another. I'd marvelled at the connection a boy could develop with a woman he hardly knew through the computer. And despite reading about the dangers of too much screen time, I turned a blind eye to the studies because I needed that screen time for him. But more recently, he couldn't pull himself away from his activities to talk to Grandma anymore. I remember the sad resignation in my mom's voice as she tried to talk to him. I'd make excuses to lighten the mood and tried not to feed my "guilt monster" anymore (considering an only child who moves 4,000 miles away from her mother and then has babies already has a pretty hefty guilt monster to drag around with her.)

So, weeks after returning from her funeral, when my son suddenly started shouting, "I wanna talk to Grandma!", I was stunned for a moment that seemed to last an eternity. The room spiralled. My guilt monster burst onto the floor, howling. All the feels oozed out, everywhere.

Oh my God, he didn't forget her.

Don't shake. Don't cry. Don't panic. This is good.

He wants to talk to Grandma.

And make silly faces.

And look into her warm, laughing eyes, behind her glasses.

She will be wearing the blue shirt.

And her wispy brown hair, with less grey in it than mine (damn her!)

And she will be sitting in front of the table with the pink lamp on it.

And oh my God, why didn't I go home last year?! I know, I know. I was pregnant, but I should have taken him to see her one more time! We told her we'd come in April and bring the baby. We had it all planned. How could this happen?!

Stop. Stop. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

And I said, "Grandma died. We can talk to Grandma whenever we want to, but we have to talk to her picture now, instead of the computer. And Grandma can't answer us anymore. But that's okay." Just the way I'd told him the first time.

I'm glad my husband and I had the presence of mind to come up with something sensible to tell our son. Something short, simple, un-scary. Not only because it might be a difficult thing for him to process, but also because it was, is, a difficult thing for me to process. I would advise anyone in this situation to prepare yourself not just for the instance of explaining death to a toddler. The topic has a way of cropping up again and again, when you least expect it.

Later that night, after my son's first outburst, my husband asked me if I was alright. I sighed and said yes. Then he told me he'd found our son in our bedroom, saying "Night night, Grandma" to my mom's picture.

My mom would have loved that.

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