Monday, June 29, 2015

Explaining Death To A Toddler

[Reviewed and updated July 18, 2021]

Genuine listening [where parents listen respectfully to their children] requires being prepared to make new discoveries and to share sorrow and fear. This is difficult at any time; it is most difficult when the parent is in grief.  ~ David Peretz, MD

A reader writes: Basically, everything I’ve ever read recommends that a toddler not be shielded from the truth, and I believe that. However, there is a set of special circumstances here. My daughter saw her grandmother every day since she was born, as my mother cared for her while I was at work. The care-giving stopped abruptly last year. That has been very hard to deal with, but my older children were victims of a terrible crime by her husband, and for my younger child’s safety, I had to stop my baby from seeing her grandmother because my mother refused to leave this man. We didn’t have any luck explaining that to a toddler.
          My daughter is now three years old, and we’ve just learned that suddenly and unexpectedly, her grandmother passed away this afternoon. We feel horrible. A lot of guilt going around wondering if not getting to see her grandchildren contributed to this but my children’s safety came first. The baby doesn’t seem to mention her anymore. It almost seems cruel and unusual to say she will get to see her finally, but only as a dead person.
          So do we tell her that her grandmother died, and do we try to put her through the funeral? The older children (14 and 12) need the closure and they are going. The sheriff is keeping the criminal away, as being there would violate his probation and I doubt he would survive the encounter with us. No matter how weak my mother was (her inaction and denial in our eyes was unforgivable), the baby did love her. Any thoughts?

My response: I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your mother, and I can certainly appreciate your concerns, given your family history. I also appreciate your wanting to do what’s best for your youngest daughter as you try to explain what’s happening.

As I’m sure you already know, no matter how young she is, a child can sense when things in the family routine are different, even if she cannot figure out why. When someone in the family dies, the first few hours are usually filled with turmoil and disruption. Relatives, friends and neighbors may be ringing the doorbell and calling on the phone, for example. At the very least, your daughter will probably notice a different level of excitement, sadness or anxiety around her and she’ll be aware of your paying less attention to her.

Since your daughter has had no personal contact with her grandmother for the last year, she has already experienced and endured physical separation from her. Since you don’t say otherwise, I assume that your daughter has adjusted fairly well to that separation. You know your daughter better than anyone else, so you are in the best position to evaluate how she is reacting and responding to what is happening around her now, and how she will react to the news of her grandmother’s death.

If your daughter is like most other three-year-olds, she won’t understand the concept of death. A child’s concept of death varies with the cognitive and emotional level of development of the individual child but she can still feel your sadness and guilt, and she may respond by crying, clinging, withdrawing or regressing. She will find reassurance through hugs, cuddling, having special time with you, and sticking to her normal routines.

As her mother, you already know how to talk to this child at her level of understanding. Talking about the death of her grandmother is no different from talking about any other sensitive topic; no special skills are required. What is essential are honesty and a willingness to listen.

Being honest with your daughter teaches her to trust, and most especially to trust you, her mother. Listening to your daughter conveys respect for her thoughts, feelings and viewpoints. Keep in mind that your daughter already is an expert at reading your mood (including your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice). She knows intuitively that something is wrong, even if shes not sure what it is. Children can pick up which subjects are "taboo" in a family (when parents act uncomfortable or reluctant to discuss a topic, or when they evade or change the subject.) As your daughter observes your behavior and reactions surrounding your mothers death, she will draw her own conclusions.

I encourage you not to lie to your daughter about this death, not to act evasive or offer unrealistic explanations. Lying to a child leaves her with a powerful conclusion: If my mother lied to me about the death of my grandmother, what else has she lied to me about? Your daughter needs to be told what has happened to her grandmother, and as soon as possible, so that she will learn about it from you first.

How should you explain this death to your daughter? The same way you would explain any other important milestone: Offer the facts in a simple, honest, straightforward, non-threatening and caring way. The following tips are taken from my article, Explaining Death to Children:
  • Be honest, and keep it simple. Children know when adults are shading the truth. 
  • First, find out what your child already knows (or thinks she knows) about death. 
  • Validate feelings and encourage your daughter to share her thoughts, fears and observations about what is happening. 
  • Explain that in the circle of life all living things will die someday, and that death causes changes in a living thing. 
  • Avoid euphemisms such as, passed away, etc. 
Explain what dead means. You might say, for example, that Grandma died. Her heart stopped beating and she doesn’t breathe in and out anymore. She doesn’t need to eat or go to the bathroom. She cannot see, hear or move, and she cannot feel pain. Being dead is not the same as sleeping. All your body parts work when you are sleeping. When a person dies, her body has stopped working. The part of Grandma that was alive is gone. All that’s left is her body like an egg shell without the egg.

Explain how we might feel when someone dies: sad, mad, or confused and we may cry sometimes. Don’t hide your own feelings. Feeling, showing and verbalizing your own pain gives your child an example to follow, while holding back implies that feelings are to be suppressed. Let your child know that grief is a family affair.

If your other children are willing, let them help whenever possible with activities such as:
  • Picking out the casket. 
  • Placing a note, drawing, special object or memento in the casket. 
  • Selecting clothing, jewelry for the deceased to wear. 
  • Selecting songs, music, readings. 
When deciding whether your toddler should attend her grandmother’s funeral, age is not the most important consideration. She is part of the family, and children who are old enough to love are old enough to grieve. No child is too young to attend a funeral, provided that the child is prepared for what will happen and what he or she will see at the funeral home, and is lovingly guided through the process. Shutting children out makes them feel alone, and conveys the idea that death and grief are too horrible to be faced.

Children need to learn that special, loved people do die, but also that there will always be somebody there to love them and take care of them.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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