How do you explain death to a toddler? The conversations that I have had with my daughter over the past few days have been some of the hardest conversations I have had in my life. On December 12th my aunt passed away after suffering from a debilitating form of Palsy. For over a year we thought that she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease; however, we recently learned that she was in fact she was suffering from a form palsy. Over the past 2 years she declined quickly. It was a hard thing to witness but we handled it. Made sure we visited her as often as we could. Made sure that she came to all the family holiday celebrations.
We also made sure that my daughter got to see her as much as possible. Family is the most important thing to me. I prefer to spend as much time as I can with my family. My biggest regret is that when my father died I did not have any pictures of him with his granddaughter. He was in and out of an assisted living facility and my daughter was only 3 months old when he died so I did not want to be bringing her into a place that could be contagious with germs at that age. I had never told her about her pop-pop dying since she was so young when it happened that I knew she didn’t remember him.
When we realized that my aunt would not be getting better I started to prepare myself and her for the worst. I will admit that I use Daniel Tiger to help me talk to her about different kinds of difficult situations and feelings. He is truly is the best teacher. There was an episode of the show in which Daniel’s fish dies and the entire episode is about things dying and how to handle those feelings of loss, confusion and acceptance. When we watched that episode she asked me if she knew anyone that had died. I used this as an opportunity to tell her about her pop-pop. She asked a lot of questions, which is only natural, but she seemed to take it in well. A few weeks later I had to tell her that Aunt Kathleen died. This hit her so much harder as she remembered her, remembered going to her house and spending time with her. She was very sad and again she asked a lot of questions. I did my best to answer them as honestly as possible in a way that a 4 yo could understand. Trying not to scare her I explained that she was very sick and the doctor’s could not fix her. I did not want to say that she went to sleep and didn’t wake up because I thought that would make her fear sleeping. I was just honest. I explained that we get a chance to say goodbye at the funeral and that she will either be buried or cremated. We are Catholic and so I explained her soul is now with God in Heaven (as we believe.)
It was also difficult for me since I had just found out my aunt passed earlier that morning. As I was explaining to her I started to cry, which is natural. I didn’t hide my tears from her, I cried right in front of her. I wanted her to know that it is OK the cry and that even grown-ups cry. She told me they didn’t. What blew me away was that she tried to cry because I was crying. She wanted me to feel better and didn’t want me to “cry all by [my]self.’
In the days since she has asked questions and made some comments that tell me she is processing what I told her. She is doing her best to understand something that even adults struggle with.