Hi, Carolyn: I have a 2½-year-old son. Sadly, my mom died from cancer when he was 10 months old. He is now at an age where his language has developed quite well, and he loves looking through photos with my wife and me. I sort of avoid showing him pictures of my mom because I don’t know what to say.
I know he can’t really comprehend death at his age. Part of the problem is my wife and I are atheists so we can’t simply say that Grandma is in heaven now. I feel terrible avoiding those photos because my mom and I were very close and she was a wonderful person. For the short time she was in my son’s life she loved him and showered him with affection even though he was too young to remember it.
What can I say to him about her? When he does come across her and asks who it is, I say it was his grandma and my mommy, but then I flip to the next photo very quickly.
Do you have any advice on how to even attempt to explain this to a child this young? My sister also has a child about his age, but she is religious so she simply tells her that Grandma is in heaven.
Michigan: The heaven answer makes it easier on your sister but leaves a lot to explain to a kid — arguably more than your worldview requires.
And, just because a toddler can’t fully comprehend doesn’t mean you avoid topics completely. It just means you can’t treat the discussion of a tough concept as a complete transaction — where, say, you define death for him and check that box for good. Instead, you treat it as one of many steps toward understanding over days, months, years.
That process does include limiting his exposure to painful concepts and speaking of them only in child-friendly terms, but these are actually later steps that follow a vastly more significant first step: establishing trust. You need to show your son he can talk to you about anything, no matter how difficult and no matter how much you actually know.
That trust begins with choosing not to run (or flip) away from hard topics.
Let him see his grandma. Let him hear how much you loved and miss her. Let him ask his questions. (“Lifetimes” by Bryan Mellonie can help.)
The more calmly you handle hard topics, the less fearfully your son will ask about them, which is exactly how you make yourself the person he learns from instead of turning to his peers, the media or his own imagination — which, if you recall from your own childhood, is often more terrifying than anything a parent can say.
Opening yourself to any and all topics means you’re going to feel awkward, and you’ll get caught without answers sometimes. That’s fine. Just have a phrase ready: “I need to think about that.” Do go back to it when you’re ready, though. Using “later” as a dodge undermines trust.
When you just don’t know something, say that, too. Then say you’ll look it up, if it’s knowable. If it’s not — as some questions about death tend to be — have phrasing ready that accounts for different views: “Some people believe ______. Others believe ______.”
Avoiding these discussions altogether may seem like the best way to protect kids, but consider: Death, cancer and sadness don’t wait behind a velvet rope until kids are old enough to handle them. They happen when they happen. If you resolve to be your son’s guide through life’s painful moments vs. his sentry attempting to bar the door, then you’ll teach him how to face pain, how to give and receive support, and how to keep living and finding joy. You’ll empower him, over time, to do these on his own.
Dodging Grandma, by contrast, creates the impression that death is a shadowy thing too terrible to mention. Waiting till you think the time is right — when will that be, by the way, and how will you frame the announcement? — effectively strands him without such a guide as he collects little scraps of the truth whether you intend him to or not.
So take that trust-building step. “She’s your grandma. She died when you were 10 months old. She loved you sooooooo much.”
Then let your son’s curiosity, comprehension and language skills tell you how much more information he’s ready to receive; that’s the essence of the follow-up steps. He asks a question; you give as basic and kid-phrased an answer as you can while still being factually correct, like, “She died when you were 10 months old,” above. Then you see whether he asks a follow-up question. That will be his way of showing you what he is and isn’t ready to comprehend. When he does ask, give another factual, spare, kid-size answer. Then wait. And so on.
Best part: In explaining loss, you’re teaching him about love.