How To Talk To Your Toddler About Death

Earlier this week, and my husband received news that a childhood friend passed away in a tragic accident . You might have heard about him. His name was Kyle Forti. He was one of the four who lost their life in a helicopter crash in Kenya. Stephen was distraught to hear this news, even more so when he learned about Hope, Kyle’s wife. Just two weeks ago, Hope found out that she was expecting their second child. Together, Kyle and Hope were raising their son and four foster child. This news was sobering. How would Hope tell her son about his father’s death? How does any parent explain death to their child? Can young children even understand the concept of death, the permanence?

Be Open About The Emotions Of Grief

Comfort your child as they need. Via Self Magazine

Claire Lerner, child development specialist and founder of nonprofit Zero To Three, explains that children cannot begin to grasp the concept of death until between ages two and three. While children may not understand what has happened, they are perceptive. Even children younger than two can pick up on our feelings and emotional state. It’s possible that they may know something sad has happened. In this case it’s really important to focus on feelings. By being open about your feelings, you are providing an example for your little one to know it’s safe to do so. You might say something like, “I’m crying because I’m sad, I miss Grandma a lot today. It’s okay to cry.”

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Connect Death With Natural Lifecycles

Death is a natural part of life. Via Art By Michelle

You can help prepare your child before they experience the death of a loved one. It’s easy to find opportunities to discuss death in our everyday life. For children as young as three, these conversations can be in as easy as studying the changing seasons. As the blooms of summer flowers fade, explain to your child that the flower has died and cannot come back. Detail what death means for a flower: it cannot grow, it cannot drink water, it cannot turn green again. This tangible real-world example can be a cornerstone to refer back to when death hits closer to home.

Use The Words “Death”, “Dead”, “Died”

Use the actual words to describe death. Via Halton Parents Blog

While it might seem gentler or easier to use phrases like “passed away”, or “went to sleep”, child psychologists warn against this practice. The ambiguity might be confusing. For example, they might fear going to sleep means they won’t wake up in the morning. Or they might worry that a minor illness means someone is going to die. Child development experts agree that before age 5, death is conceptual to children. At five years, children begin to grasp the finality of death. Around nine years, children realize that they will die someday. It’s important not to confuse or dilute the notion of permanence even at a young age.

Be Prepared To Answer Questions From Your Toddler

Kids will be curious about death. Via Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Toddlers are notorious for asking the famous one word question that often stumps every adult in the room: “Why?” Honesty is the best policy. It’s OK to admit that you don’t know the answer. Sometimes kids will fixate on death, obsessing about the death of people who are currently alive. They might be old enough to worry that their own parents might go away and never come back. Reassure them that they are safe no matter what happens. “I don’t expect to die for a long time, but if I did die, you’d be safe and cared for. You have Grandma, Aunt JulieAnne, Uncle Micah…” and so on.

Toddlers don’t come with an instruction manual, and neither does grief. Children have their own process to come to terms with death. Our job as parents is to facilitate that and support it in a healthy way. By being honest about our own emotions, we encourage our children to express their own feelings. That same honesty helps us identify real-world examples of death, which is hugely important in forming your child’s conceptual associations with death. Grief is an ongoing process. Don’t be surprised if your little one asks questions beyond their years! Since we can’t avoid death, this is one parenting challenge we all have to face head-on. I hope none of us ever have to have the same conversation that Hope Forti is having with her toddler this week; but if we do, may we have courage. 

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