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Carolyn Hax: What do they tell their toddler son when he asks, ‘Why is Mom sad?’

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Dear Carolyn: My brother died a few months ago, and I am not managing it well. Or maybe I am, I don’t know. It’s the worst, and I have no real sense of how this is supposed to go.

I have a 3-year-old who never met my brother. We were estranged, as he had some substance abuse issues that affected our relationship. But I still miss him, and I miss the person he was, and the person he might have been if he'd gotten better.

I’m struggling with what to say to my boy, or what my husband can say to him, when I’m having a hard time. They heard me sobbing in the shower the other day, and my husband doesn’t know how to answer the question, “Why is Mom sad?” What do we say?

— Sad

Sad: I am so sorry for your loss. Losses, I should say; you’re so right that you’re grieving the person, the relationship, and the possibilities.

Your son is obviously too young for the details, but he is not too young for the basics. “Why is Mom sad,” your son asks? “Mom misses her brother,” his father replies.

Aside from being a simple and true answer, it's also a toddler-size piece of a reality from which we can't protect our kids. People die. People get sad. People cry. If you don't allow children to see and understand these things, and watch people move through them in a healthy way, then you don't allow them to prepare themselves in natural, age-appropriate ways to handle these things themselves.

Don't just stop at one answer, either. Let the child's follow-up questions lead you to the next toddler-size pieces of information he is ready to receive. Short, natural, true.

While it may seem this is all too much weight for a child to carry — especially since you can barely carry it yourself — remember the experience for your son is profoundly different. You have the full connection to your brother to miss and the full complicated story to process. You understand more and feel more. For your son, much of this is abstract and out of reach. What might scare him most, in fact, is not explaining why you’re so sad.

So your crucial role as a parent, and as a person grieving, is to show your son what life looks like when bad things happen and churn up big emotions. You can show him how life and love go on through hardship. You can show him how you care for him, care for yourself, and how others care for you. (And how others step in if you aren't able to carry on in a healthy way.)

You can let him comfort you. Even if you're the one who hugs him, you can say, “Thank you, I feel better now,” and connect him to his compassion, his worth, and the continuity of the living.

When he’s receptive to learning about death, I recommend, “Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Life and Death to Children,” by Bryan Mellonie. It is both gentle and refreshingly matter-of-fact.

But that’s for later. For now is this ongoing lesson about life: It can be so painful it weakens your knees and leaves you gasping for breath — and so you summon your people, your hope and your strength to carry you until the worst of the pain is behind you. Show him that being sad, even devastated, doesn’t mean you won’t be okay.

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