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That Time My Toddler Asked Me About Death

Bedtime for my daughter is often treated as two long naps, and since most evenings my husband handles the first round of bedtime, I'm usually the one who's up at 2 or 3 a.m., trying to coax our girl back to sleep.

One night not long before our daughter's third birthday, I found myself on duty for round two. It was irrelevant to her that in just four hours we had to be awake to start getting ready for preschool or that I hadn't even turned in yet because I'd stayed up late to finish working. She wiggled around next to me in her bed, trying to find somewhere to put her inexhaustible overnight energy. She settled on questions, and I played along:

"What's your second name?" she asked.

"Sara," I answered. "After my grandmother. What's your second name?"

She hesitated for a moment before answering, "Maureen."

"That's right, after my mom." I couldn't tell if she'd steered the conversation in this direction on purpose, but the minute the word mom was out of my mouth, she pulled my head against her chest, cuddling my face with her entire body.

Her voice arrived muffled through the barrier of her arms. "Did she get broke?"

"Not exactly," I said. "She died."

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It's not the first time she'd heard it—my mother died when I was a child, and I'd always answered that question truthfully whenever my daughter had asked, but lately her curiosity about this topic had grown.

My toddler filled in the rest of the story for me, her voice weighted with expert sympathy: "She got sick."

The next time she came down with a cold, I worried, would she feel scared that she might die? If she saw me stricken with the flu, would she panic?

I wanted to tell her yes but also no. Because it's true, of course, that she did get sick. But it's also true that toddlers think in absolutes, that they need to be able to put things in boxes. The next time she came down with a cold, I worried, would she feel scared that she might die? If she saw me stricken with the flu, would she panic? I didn't ever want to hurt her in that way, but I also disagree that we destroy a child's innocence by openly presenting reality in ways that are age-appropriate.

"She did," I told her. "A big kind of sick." I reminded her again about cancer and how this was different from the kind of sick we usually got at home.

Resources for how to discuss death and dying with young children, like Hospicenet.org, elaborate:

"Preschoolers cannot differentiate between temporary and fatal illness, and minor ailments may begin to cause them unnecessary concern. When talking to a child about someone who has died as a result of an illness, it might be helpful to explain that only a very serious illness may cause death, and that although we all get sick sometimes, we usually get better again."

My daughter seemed to understand the distinction I was hoping to make. "Did you get a new mom?" she asked.

There was a little bit of hopefulness in her voice, a light I couldn't stand to darken. Weeks earlier, apropos of nothing, she'd found me in my bedroom and offered to be my "bonus mommy," so I knew already she was aware, at least on some level, of the answer to this question.

I shook my head against the cotton of her comforter. "I didn't."

In their booklet, "Helping Children Cope with Death," Portland, Oregon's The Dougy Center suggests: "It's important to understand that young children need to be included in the process when a family member is dying or has died," noting that, "Children need clear, honest explanations about death. ... Although young children do not usually understand the finality of death, they can learn over time what it means."

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Still, my daughter's bright empathy showed in full force. "Are you bummed out?"

I smiled into her pajama shirt. "I'm doing OK."

But still, she pressed. "A little bummed?"

I gently squeezed her arm. "A little, but it helps me feel better that I get to be a mommy to you." And that's the truth—no sugar-coating needed.

Photograph by: Kirsten Clodfelter

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