death

How I Talk About Death and Loss With My Toddler

Little girl resting her head on her father's shoulder

Death is part of my life, not in any metaphorical sense, but in a palpable way. My younger brother Noah died of suicide on his 21st birthday, and the first anniversary of my grandmother’s funeral; my mother died a few years later after living for eight years with cancer caused by a genetic mutation that I share. These losses are present with me as I go through life, and perhaps never as much as when I became a parent.

Just like most parents, I wonder about the “right time” to introduce difficult subjects to my kids. But the stories of my mother, brother, and grandmother, and the ways that their deaths have informed my life, are so much a part of my family experience, that I can no longer even remember the first time I talked to my older child, Nava, about it. Nava knows that when you die, your whole body stops working, and the people who survive you are left with memories. She knows that everything that is alive dies eventually. She knows that it’s really sad, and that her parents believe it is permanent (although exposure to Christian art at the Met has seeded doubt for her). She knows that she is named for her Uncle Noah and Grandma Ruth.

One thing she does not know quite yet, however, is how to talk about death in the way polite society does—but better to get out those ya-yas before she joins polite society, right?

Some vignettes of the more awkward conversations:

We were standing in line to buy milk at a country dairy. They were also selling locally roasted coffee beans and I pointed out the beans’ pleasant aroma to 2-year-old Nava, since we are not a household of coffee drinkers. Her eyes lit up as her brain made those toddler connections, and then went down the line telling people, “Grandma Ruth and Grandma Phyllis like coffee, but Grandma Phyllis is alive!” Some shoppers seemed uncomfortable, so I laughed and chimed in something like, “Well, she is right!” It cleared the air.

A few months later, we were walking to Sukkot services. It was raining, and I was very pregnant with my son. The Jewish yearly cycle of sowing and reaping and birthing and dying felt very present to me, but still, it jolted me when Nava said cheerfully, “I’m going to die soon.” This time, I was the uncomfortable one.

In fact, in my hormonally induced state of heightened superstition, I started panicking inside. My husband and I asked her to clarify, but she couldn’t understand why we had a hard time understanding her simple statement. I told her that no, we hoped that wasn’t true, and that she should grow to be a very old lady and then die.

“But, in the scheme of eternity,” I said to my husband.  He smirked at me and rolled his eyes. Our daughter’s prophetic grasp of eternity (or not) was not worth debating. We continued on our way.

That same summer, my sister in law’s young dog died of a surprising and fast moving cancer. Since my in-laws all live on the west coast, we delayed telling Nava for one reason or another–sleep and toilet regressions related to my pregnancy, maybe, disrupted summer schedules— normal kid-life stuff that led to our pushing off an inevitable conversation. She finally asked about seeing the dog again, and my husband had to break it to her. She was crestfallen, but processed it well. “We will still have good memories of him,” she said dutifully. Then, some minutes later she asked, “Did Grandma’s dog Amy die too?”  (Luckily, no other dogs had died at that time, indeed, Amy is still alive and kicking as I type this.)

Death is mysterious and hard, even for adults—but not all conversations about it need to be. For our family, broken toys and wilted flowers have been jumping off points for talking about love, loss, permanence and impermanence, and irreplaceability. And as much as I sometimes suspect Nava is parroting back our values, I also recognize the times she is making her own original, and deep, connections.

For instance, when it came up in a conversation that the singer Jeff Buckley died at a young age, she said, “It’s sad when people die when they are still young, like Jeff Buckley and Uncle Noah.” For now, she understands but is not overwhelmed by the fact of this sadness. She seems unburdened by the knowledge that death, with its accompanying sorrow, is part of her world, and of all of ours.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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