Toddlers: 24 Months+

How to explain death to a 2 year old.

I've been looking all over the internet and talking with people on how to handle this. My sons uncle recently committed suicide, no note or reasons leading up to it. He always seemed so happy, a smile on his face, laughing, and he also had a 3 year old daughter. They were all very close, my sons father and I split up about 9 months ago and he moved in with his brother so my son was over there every other weekend. We've had a sit down with him and explained that his uncle had died, knowing he has no idea what that means, but knowing as he gets older he can make a definition of what that means and can ask questions. My question is how do I respond when he asks to see his uncle? Do I tell him his uncle isn't here any more, or do I remind him he died(which is really hard to say, selfish reasons I guess??) I've also never dealt with a sudden loss like this before and am having a hard time dealing with this, I feel that I need to hide my tears from my son, just so he doesn't see me weak, I feel that I need to be strong for my boy, I feel like he needs to know that mommy can keep it together. He's never seen me cry before this. I feel that I need to be strong for all of us, my son, his dad and myself. Maybe I need reassurance I'm doing this ok, or if I'm not i need advice. I don't know what to do, or what the right thing to do is.
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Re: How to explain death to a 2 year old.

  • So sorry for your loss.  Since you've been researching I am sure you have seen that there are books out there about how to explain death to young children.  In general they advise you to be honest and direct in an age-appropriate way.  Let the child lead the discussion and answer their questions as simply as you can. 

    In my case, I lost my father about a year ago when DD was almost 3.5 years old.  He lived far away and had been sick for a long time so she didn't know him well, but she knew I was upset and I was honest with her that I was sad because Grandpa died and I miss him.  She asked me about why he died and things like that, and I just tried to be as honest as I could without making her afraid.  He had cancer, so that was an easier thing to explain in many ways than suicide.  Honestly if possible I would try to contact a counselor for advice on addressing those questions because I would be afraid that suicide could be a scary and upsetting concept to a child in itself. 

    As far as your emotions go, I think it is totally fine and in fact probably healthier for your son to see that you are upset.  It is OK for him to see that you are human, that you have feelings, and that you are dealing with those feelings in a healthy way.  My sympathies to you and your family.
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  • First, I am so sorry for your loss.  Please don't worry about your son seeing you cry.  It is an okay thing and you don't need to always be strong for him.  It's good for him to see appropriate emotional reaction.  It'll help him develop empathy, which is something they're working on around this time. Mommies are allowed to be sad, the same way they are allowed to be happy or tired or hungry.

    My FIL died suddenly this summer when my son was 21 months, so obviously younger and not as able to process as your almost 3 year old.  Like you, we explained that Grandpa had died, knowing the word wouldn't hold much meaning, but we also explained that "died" meant we wouldn't be seeing grandpa anymore.  (And that daddy was very sad about that)  And when he asked for grandpa we'd remind him that we couldn't see grandpa anymore because he died.  I know it's hard to say right now for you, you sound like you're still very heavy into the shock part of grieving, but the words will get easier to say, and he will ask less.
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  • Thank you all so much. This has definitely been devastating, if there is even a word to describe the situation and the feelings that go along with it. It took a lot for me to even ask on here, I've started to  try way to get my thoughts out and its just too hard, it makes it so real. So I really, truly thank you for all the advice and thoughts.
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  • we lost my FIL last year (my kids were very close with him). We told the truth. Grandpa died, and we won't see him again since he's not alive anymore. They ask about him a lot and we just remind them about what happened.

    I'm sorry for your loss.
    "Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies. God damn it, you've got to be kind." - Kurt Vonnegut
  • As others said, I can't imagine what you are going through. So sorry for your loss. What a devastating way to lose someone. I don't remember off-hand exactly what the diff. stages of grief are but I do no that your son is at an age where he won't understand the permanency of death. I think it is somewhere around 2nd-3rd grade where kids start to grasp that concept. Before that age they think they can come back. I would contact a child councilor for info. Again, I am so sorry. 
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  • I've been looking all over the internet and talking with people on how to handle this. My sons uncle recently committed suicide, no note or reasons leading up to it. He always seemed so happy, a smile on his face, laughing, and he also had a 3 year old daughter. They were all very close, my sons father and I split up about 9 months ago and he moved in with his brother so my son was over there every other weekend. We've had a sit down with him and explained that his uncle had died, knowing he has no idea what that means, but knowing as he gets older he can make a definition of what that means and can ask questions. My question is how do I respond when he asks to see his uncle? Do I tell him his uncle isn't here any more, or do I remind him he died(which is really hard to say, selfish reasons I guess??) I've also never dealt with a sudden loss like this before and am having a hard time dealing with this, I feel that I need to hide my tears from my son, just so he doesn't see me weak, I feel that I need to be strong for my boy, I feel like he needs to know that mommy can keep it together. He's never seen me cry before this. I feel that I need to be strong for all of us, my son, his dad and myself. Maybe I need reassurance I'm doing this ok, or if I'm not i need advice. I don't know what to do, or what the right thing to do is.

    I am so sorry for your loss. I have lost family members suddenly as well and I know how hard it can be. Its always hard to lose a family member, and even worse during the holidays when you see others celebrating and being close with their families.

    I think its great that you want to be strong for your son, and that you are being supportive of his dad through this. That is really great. But kids are very perceptive, even when they are young, and they need to see us be human too. Its okay to cry in front of your kids. Crying doesn't mean you are weak, it means you have feelings! Kids need to see us cry so they know its okay to cry in front of us. Little ones inherently think that parents are strong and capable. I doubt that if he sees you cry a few times that he will think you are weak. I don't think kids really think in terms of strong vs. weak. They think parents can do anything at this age. For instance, DD thinks that I have control over whether or not its daytime or nighttime, and the weather too. Its important also, for kids to know that we need them as much as they need us. Let his smile be a comfort to you during this time. When I am sad, I tell DD, "Mommy feels a little sad. Can I have a hug please?" and she says, "Course you can!" and that makes everything a little better.

    You don't have to say that he committed suicide until he's much older. (I've heard that some experts say that giving as little info as possible is best. "Just because" or an equivalent answer may suffice until he's old enough to realize that you and his dad aren't going to die suddenly too.) Eventually he will hear it from another family member, or will ask you how it happened, and at that point it will be okay to tell him in an age appropriate way.

    Kids this small definitely don't understand that death means they won't see that person again in this lifetime (not sure what you believe as far as afterlife, but if you believe in Heaven you could say his uncle is in Heaven and he will get to see him in Heaven one day. If not, I suppose you could say that he's died and will be in his heart and memories forever, even if they don't get to play together anymore.) so he's bound to ask to his uncle again, or wonder where he is. There is a Sesame Street episode which deals with this (when Mr. Hooper dies) which you could check out to get some sort of idea what to say. There's also some Sesame Street resources which deal with the deaths of military members, which you could look up and adapt to your needs. There are also some things I've seen on Pinterest on helping little ones deal with loss. There are tons of books out there too. When he's old enough to write you could help him journal his thoughts if he is still dealing with his loss.

    DD's great grandad is currently dying, and she is 2. He has about 3-6 months to live and we are currently dealing with that and how to explain it to her when he dies, and when she attends his funeral. Right now all she knows is that he is very sick. He lives far away so she doesn't see him often so its not greatly affecting her at the moment, but she does see me getting upset about it. We just tell her that I'm sad that her Dada is sick.

    I think we are going to tell her that he's in Heaven (we are a religious family) and that he loved her very much and even though he is gone she can still think about him and remember him. When it stops hurting so terribly we will make her a little memory book with pictures so she can look at them whenever she wants. This might be a great option for your son, since he is so little and kids forget things that happen when they are little, it will help keep his memories of the good times with his uncle alive.

    Remember to take care of yourself as well as your son. There are lots of resources out there for grieving families such as therapy, children's counseling, and support groups. I know counseling and therapy gets a bad rap for being really expensive and not worth it, but it can also be really rewarding and affordable too. I know many grief counseling groups can be free, check your local paper or listings online and I bet you can find a lot. If you attend a church you could ask your pastor or sunday school teacher (or anyone) for prayer or and grief counseling.
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  • FWIW, I just came across a nice book called "Snowflakes" by Patricia McGlaughlin. It is recommended for kids ages 4-8 but obviously it can vary. May not hurt to have it on hand for now or down the road. I have also heard that "Freddy the Leaf" is a good book for helping kids deal with grief. Sorry again, for your loss.
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