Explaining Daddy’s Death to a Toddler
Your husband just passed away. You’re grief-stricken and overwhelmed by all that needs to be done. One of the most important and far-reaching tasks you will handle at this time is explaining Daddy’s death to your child (a toddler). Given the significance of this conversation (or, more likely, these conversations), you should approach the conversation(s) thoughtfully, giving careful consideration to the circumstances of the death, the history of death in your toddler’s experience, your family’s faith, your toddler’s emotional sensitivity and inquisitiveness, and other issues. How then can you explain Daddy’s death to your toddler?
If your husband suffered from a lingering illness, you will likely have had time to speak with your toddler about what she is seeing her daddy experience. Perhaps you heard questions like, “Why does Daddy stay in bed all day?” or “Why doesn’t Daddy play games with me anymore?” With lingering illness comes opportunities to foreshadow what is coming, explaining death incrementally to your toddler. When death actually occurs, your conversation will be the conclusion of these conversations. For example, you may say, “Katie, you know Daddy’s been sick lately, right? We’ve talked about how he was going home to Jesus. Well, this morning, he went home. He’s in Heaven now.”
If your husband died unexpectedly, perhaps you can draw upon an experience your toddler had with someone else’s death. For example, you may say, “Katie, do you remember Aunt Jane? She died last year from a heart attack. Do you remember going to her funeral? Do you remember the things we talked about back then . . . about death and what it means? Ok. Well, Katie, your daddy had a car accident on the way to work this morning. He died. He’s with Aunt Jane now in the Great Beyond.”
If your toddler has no prior experience with death, you will need to explain death somewhat thoroughly, but not all in one conversation. Start with some of the basics and add more details when you perceive your toddler to be wanting or needing more information. For example, you may start with, “Katie, I got you out of school today because something happened. Today, when Daddy was driving to work, there was a car accident. You’ve seen car accidents, right? Well, people sometimes get hurt in car accidents. Sometimes, they get hurt a little, maybe a few bumps or bruises; sometimes, they get hurt a lot. Katie, Daddy’s car accident gave him an ouchie that was not a little bump or bruise. Daddy died today, Katie. Daddy’s body and his spirit have separated . . . they’re not together anymore. His body has gone to a place called a mortuary where they will prepare it for us to see him look nice and dressed up. He will then be buried and will stay nice and dressed up forever. His spirit is in Heaven. I know this is hard to understand, but the body that you hugged every day is not going to be at the house any more, but his spirit will always be with us, watching over us, ok?”
Your family’s faith with significantly shape how you explain Daddy’s death to your toddler. Is Daddy in Heaven? Will Daddy be reincarnated? Did Daddy cease to exist when his body died? These and other issues are explained through faith. For example, you may say, “Katie, Daddy died today. We don’t know what happened. He was fine this morning and went to work just like he normally did; but he was found dead at his desk just a half hour after he got to work. We’ll talk about what’s going to happen in our family in the next few weeks in just a moment. First, let’s talk about what ‘death’ means. There are lots of ways of looking at death, and different families see it differently. In our family, we see death as part of the circle of life. Daddy’s gone, but our memory of his life is a gift he has given us. When life ends for one, life begins for another. Remember how we watched that nature program that showed how one animal died and his body nourished the soil and caused all kinds of pretty plants to grow? Well, Daddy’s body will do sort of the same thing. He has chosen to donate his organs to people in need. So, someone who needs a kidney will get one of Daddy’s kidneys, and that will help him or her live. Daddy wasn’t going to be able to use his kidneys anymore anyway, so he wanted to help others by sharing what he could. Do you understand what I’m saying? Once all his organs that will be donated are given to people in need, Daddy’s body will be taken to a college where they will study bodies over time. He will help the students learn. It was so important to Daddy to help others, and he found a way to help others even when he is no longer around.”
If your toddler is emotionally sensitive, you will need to be particularly careful about the information and words that you share with your toddler. Don’t share information that is too detailed for your sensitive child to handle well. Refrain from use of words that are too direct; euphemisms may be more constructive. Instead of saying, “Daddy died”, it may be better to say, “Daddy joined Gramma and Grampa in Heaven.”
If your toddler is inquisitive, you are encouraged to respond to her inquisitive nature and provide her with the information that she seeks. If your toddler asks, “Why did Daddy have to die?”, you can say, “I don’t know, honey. Daddy died of the same thing that killed his daddy . . . and at about the same age, too. I think maybe the men in the family have something that makes them sick like this. The women in the family don’t seem to get sick like that. I’m so glad you’re a girl so we don’t have to worry that you’ll get sick like that too. Anyway, I don’t know for sure why Daddy had to die, but I think it has to do with that family sickness.”
Regardless of the circumstances of Daddy’s death, the history of death in your toddler’s experience, your family’s faith, and your toddler’s emotional sensitivity and inquisitiveness, there are some things that you should always say when speaking about Daddy’s death with your toddler. You should always emphasize that Daddy loved her; this message needs to be communicated over and over again for years following Daddy’s death. You should also reassure your toddler that Daddy didn’t choose to leave, but that his death was outside of his control. You should admit your own sadness, and let your toddler know that you two will be going through this difficult time together. You should let your toddler know that she can tell you anything, that you want to help her work through whatever she may be feeling in the days and months ahead. You should explain to your toddler what is going to be happening in the next few days or weeks (i.e., lots of visitors to the house, lots of people bringing in food, lots of people crying and talking about Daddy, missing pre-school, missing classmates, normal schedules fading and time seeming to stand still for a while, going to a visitation and a funeral, returning to pre-school and having to answer classmates’ questions about the death, dealing with sympathy from others, etc.).
One final note: your toddler may or may not be able to understand death, even if you explain it well. If your toddler does understand death (i.e., Daddy’s dead . . . not coming home any more . . . buried . . . in Heaven), she still probably won’t have the emotional reaction that you expect. It isn’t that she didn’t love her daddy; her emotions just aren’t as developed as yours are. If she starts acting aggrieved, you should begin by asking her questions about what specifically is upsetting her; don’t just assume that it’s the grief itself that she is having trouble coping with. It may be that she is struggling to cope with the change in her routine or that she doesn’t get as much attention from you as she needs at a time like this since you’ve been busy making funeral arrangements, attending to the many guests in your home, dealing with your own grief, etc. Don’t communicate to your child that you expect her to be grief-stricken; she just may try to please you by manufacturing the response that she thinks you want from her. That will be confusing and uncomfortable for her, and it may cause her to feel guilty for not naturally feeling the grief that she thinks she should be feeling. Instead, you should communicate that you are there for her when she needs you . . . and that it’s ok for her to tell you anything that she’s thinking or feeling. That way, if she is upset by her topsy-turvy new schedule or simply needing reassurance that things will return to normal (sort of) once the funeral is over and everyone goes home, she will know she can talk to you about those things without having to reframe the discussion to make it fit a grief model that she does not fit.