How to Explain Death to a Toddler
What should a parent tell a child who is too young to understand death?
Q. My father recently died, and I'm not sure what to do concerning my 20-month-old. When we go to my parents' house, she asks for Pop-pop and we tell her he's not home. How can you explain to a baby that someone has died?
A. Helping her understand what has happened to Pop-pop is indeed a challenge, as 20-month-olds can't comprehend the idea of death, or even that they will never see someone again. At the same time, children are very tuned in to the feelings of the important adults in their lives, so it is likely that your daughter understands that something sad has happened. It is important that you acknowledge this.
Focus on addressing her feelings. You can say something like, "Pop-pop isn't here. I miss him too."
Until your child is between ages 2 and 3, she won't be able to understand more. If she asks questions, Linda Goldman, a grief therapist in Washington, D.C., says you can then explain that Pop-pop is not coming back; that he died, which means that his body stopped working. Tell her this happens when people are very old or sick and doctors can't make their bodies work anymore. Explain that Pop-pop couldn't do things like eat or play outside anymore. This gives her a context she can relate to.
If she asks whether Pop-pop will ever come back, you should tell her the truth -- that he won't. If your child asks whether you or she will die, you can explain that your bodies are healthy and strong so you're not going to die now.
Reading about loss can also be helpful. Two good books are When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers (Puffin, 1998) and When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny and Marc Brown (Little Brown & Co., 1998).
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2004.