Talking to Your Toddler About the Death of a Parent

Losing a spouse is difficult to begin with—having to explain that death to your young child makes it even more heartbreaking. Many widowed parents experience just that. It is a hard undertaking, but it can be done with grace.
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My husband passed away when my son was just four months old. Now, four years later, John is a toddler, and while he has no memory of his late father, he knows he has one. Losing my spouse was (and is still) difficult, and having to explain that death to my young child at times has been even more heartbreaking. Like many widowed parents, I have worked through it as best I can, and I’ve also sought the help of experts such as Kriss Kevorkian, Ph.D., MSW, a grief specialist and thanatologist (also known as a “deaducator”). Here, I’ve compiled six pieces of advice for other parents in my situation.

Share as much as you can with your child about his late parent.

I have shown my son pictures of his father, told him stories, and we remain close with my late husband's family. This way, his father's presence is intact even though he is not physically here. According to Dr. Kevorkian, I’m doing the right thing. "Teach your son about his father," she says. "If you have photos of your husband when he was younger, share them with your son, discussing similarities and differences. Tell him about his dad. Is your son like him in any way? If so, share that. If not, you can share that perhaps he takes after you and then share the qualities your husband had."

This is what I try to do. I keep pictures of my son's father around, and even though he doesn't remember him as a physical person, he recognizes him in pictures.

The other night I showed my son a picture of my father who died when I was 18. I said, "This is my dad. He lives up in the sky." John asked, "Where is my daddy?" I then pointed to my wedding picture and said, "There he is. He lives in the sky with my dad. They are up there together."

Explain what happened in clear, simple language.

Another point to keep in mind is to be careful with your words. Tell the child what happened, but avoid using certain language. For example, do not say, "Daddy went to sleep and won't be coming back." When a child hears that, she might fear that when she goes to sleep, she might not be coming back, Dr. Kevorkian explains. And as any parent knows, trying to get your child to go to sleep at all can be quite an undertaking, so you don't want to add the element of fear on top of that. Instead, explain what happened as simply as you can. Was it an accident? Terminal illness? Suicide? “Sit down with the child and explain while asking the child to repeat what you said,” Dr. Kevorkian says. “In doing that, you're able to gauge whether the child is understanding or perhaps not quite ready to understand just yet. If that's the case, give him time to develop more while talking about the parent who died."

Don’t just talk—listen.

At 4 years old, my son may not completely understand what death means. We have lost other family members since my son was born, but he was too young to really grasp what was happening. Still, Dr. Kevorkian encourages open conversation at every age. "Kids will often understand things at whatever level they are as long as people take the time to be patient and not talk down to the child,” she says. “Listening is such an important skill that most people forget about at times. Listen to the child when asking her about death." That way, you will be able to address any fears and/or misunderstandings when they arise.

Use books that help children understand death.  

The best approach might be to read a simple book that helps explain the concept of death. Dr. Kevorkian suggests The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, by Leo Buscaglia. It can be helpful both for the child and the parent. "That book offers an endless supply of discussion-worthy material—from the illustrations to the words to whether you're talking about the death of a human or a non-human animal, there's so much to learn from this one book,” Dr. Kevorkian says. “And since it's about a leaf, it helps keep grief in the picture as a natural event.”

Don’t hide your grief.

Remember to be honest about how you're feeling. In my situation, I was very depressed when I was at home. I couldn't bring myself to act happy even around my child. However, I knew that I didn't want my son to have only one depressed parent, so I went to therapy. "Be truthful about your own grief,” Dr. Kevorkian says. “Children learn how to grieve from the adults around them." Not only did I help myself by seeking therapy for my grief, but I also set a good example for my son in dealing with these types of emotions.

Practice “griefitude.”

Mourning and grief are experiences that most people will tackle during their lifetime. And while children might not process these experiences in the same exact way that adults do, they will learn from the adults in their lives. So be conscious of that. "Grief teaches us appreciation and gratitude." Instead of going into the conversation with a negative spin, perhaps take a positive approach. Dr. Kevorkian calls it "griefitude." "We wouldn't grieve so heavily for something we didn't truly love. Grief reminds us of how fortunate we are to have had a love so deep that when it's gone, we hurt. It's a lesson in gratitude if we choose to see it that way."

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