Teaching A Toddler About Death
This is a guest post written by Felicity Frankish from The Baby Vine.
The Death Chat
Parenting is full of hard (and hilarious) conversations. The first one that springs to mind is usually The Talk- the good old “how are babies made” chat. But another important talk might come up sooner than you think. The conversation about the end of life. It could be the loss of a beloved pet or the death of a special family member. Or it could be as seemingly innocuous as a dead mouse on the road…
The Dead Mouse
It’s not a conversation I expected to have with my almost 3 year old. In fact, it’s not something I have even considered before. That is, until we came across a dead mouse on our driveway.
We were coming back from a bush-walk when Cassie darted across the road (a very quiet residential street, but still my heart leapt!) before I could scream at her to stop. I managed to grab her hand and quickly pulled her onto the curb. That’s when she spotted the mouse and asked me what it was doing. “He didn’t wait for Mummy to cross the road and a car got him!” I blurted out, without thinking.
Rather than this having a negative effect on Cassie, it made her ask more questions, but, feeling woefully unprepared, I avoided all her questions and rushed her inside.
Looking For Advice
When Cassie was in bed that night, I immediately went onto my online mothers’ group and asked the question: “How do I teach my toddler about death?”
The response was unanimous- be honest with them. If I hadn’t been so frightened and unsettled by the way Cassie bolted out onto the road, I might have told her that the mouse was fine and was just having a nap. Instead, I told her something closer to the truth– and now, I don’t regret it for a second. But I knew the conversation wasn’t over, so I had to be prepared for the rest of the lesson.
Let’s be honest, I would much rather Cassie learn about death from the dead mouse in our driveway, rather than her discover the concept when someone she loves dearly is gone. But that doesn’t make it any easier– especially not at just 3 years old!
Death: An Introductory Lesson
As suspected, first thing the next morning Cassie wanted to see the mouse. We looked at it from the window before Dad got rid of the poor little thing. This time, Cassie told me the story.
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“The mouse, he crossed the road. And he didn’t hold mummy’s hand. And so the car got him. So now he is sleeping and won’t wake up.” I nodded along and added to it, deciding now was a good time to share our beliefs with her. I told her she was right, but he wasn’t sleeping, he was actually dead and had gone to heaven. Granted, this confused her even more, because next minute she was telling me that she would like to go to heaven.
All this encouraged me to do was explain things better. So I told her more about heaven according to our beliefs, and that it meant being away from all the people she loves and who care for her. This time she nodded and agreed she wasn’t ready to go there and wanted to stay.
The topic of the dead mouse left our conversations over the next week, as she came to terms with it all on her own. Does she fully get the concept? No, I don’t think so, she is just 3 after all, but it was a great introduction to the topic that I know we will expand on over the years. But, I would rather she has a little insight into it now to make it easier for her to deal with as she gets older and understands more. Friends have also suggested we get a picture book that explains the concept to read to her, so that is next on my list!
You can follow Flick at The Baby Vine on Facebook, or over here on Instagram.
Some Suggestions for kids experiencing loss
After receiving Flick’s guest post, I thought a bit about young children dealing with death. It is, after all, a part of life. Everything I’ve read and my own experiences (My daughter was 5 and my step children were 4 and 6 when my Mum passed away) confirmed the suggestion of honesty. There’s no point pretending the deceased person will be back.
Another valuable suggestion is to help young children put their emotions into words. Language is powerful in itself but it may help them to articulate what they’re experiencing. And once they have the words, listen to them. Don’t offer judgement or try to correct them, only offer comfort and understanding.
You can also offer your child the chance to be a part of the funeral or the wake, whether it is as simple as laying a flower or saying a few words if they are so inclined. Rituals are part of the process of death in our culture, whether you are religious or even an atheist like myself. Our children chose things to go into Nanny’s coffin. Even more recently, when our cat passed away, the older kids helped our youngest to decorate a large cardboard gift box that we used to bury him in.
I also love the idea of age appropriate books to help kids process what is going on. Speaking to a few friends, we came up with a few suggestions:
- Emily from EmHawkerBlog suggests Life is Like The Wind and The Secrets We Keep.
- Children’s Books Daily has quite a few reviews on books for kids centred around death and grief. This is a great round-up.
- Story Mama suggests Old Pig.
- Helen from Helen’s Home Base mentioned The Heart in a Bottle which might appeal to some kids experiencing complicated grief.