How To Teach A Toddler About Death — & Why You Should

Illustration by Louisa Cannell
My son has never known his father.
Our apartment, all two bedrooms of it, is almost entirely wallpapered with snapshots of his dad, Justin, who died when Alex was 1, from a stage four malignant brain tumor. It’s the only physical, palpable connection that exists between father and son. When Justin was gasping through the final weeks of his life, somewhere between a barely-there bedridden torpor and the great beyond, I spoke to a child psychologist about the smartest way to explain to my tiny little child — then most obsessed with tearing off his shoes and throwing them into oncoming traffic while strapped into his stroller — the very adult concept that he’d never meet his father, because his father was going to die.
“Tell him the truth. Don’t sugarcoat it. Keep it simple and explain that his dad died from a brain tumor. Above all else, do not lie, and do not pretend that his dad is coming back,” she said.
Because I’ve never been one for euphemisms, it made perfect sense to me to call it what it was. Harsh? Perhaps. But I followed her declarative advice. And I never wavered. We didn’t “lose” Justin in a parking lot. He’s not “up there” with the angels, should they even exist. And for the love of absurdity, he’s not “sleeping” with the birds. From the time Alex was old enough to understand that his family unit was missing a person, I told him that daddy had gotten a very rare brain disease and died from it. By the time Alex was 3, he knew it was from a tumor. “Mommy, how do you get tumors?” he’d ask. And I’d tell him the truth: No one knows.

'Mommy, how do you get tumors?' he’d ask. And I’d tell him the truth: No one knows.

Now, Alex is 6. And he gets it, as much as he can. Sure, we’ve had our moments when Alex cries that it’s not fair that he’s the only kid he knows whose father (or any parent, for that matter) has died. So I tell him that no, it’s not fair, but neither is much of anything in life, and at least he has a mother who loves him more than trees and clouds and sky and mountains, who adores him more than ice cream and chocolate and marshmallows.
“Mommy, I miss daddy,” he’ll tell me, wistfully. “Mommy, I wish daddy was here to see me build this Chima Lego.” Dude, don’t I know it. On the inside, when I hear this stuff, I’m breaking into a thousand tiny shards. But I stick to my script: that no matter how much we wish something were true, wishing won’t make it so. Daddy died. And he’s gone for good.
But our world, of course, extends beyond our home, and my stance has its detractors, who give me plenty of emotional side-eye. None of whom, it should be noted, have buried (or, in my case, cremated) a spouse. No, it’s not “brave” of me to tell my son the truth. Pretending otherwise doesn’t change anything.
A few years ago, one pre-school teacher pulled me aside to point out that Alex’s directness was, perhaps, a bit “off-putting” to other kids and their parents. Maybe I could, she didn’t know, temper the message, or just soften it? I was puzzled. Should I somehow reframe reality? Maybe pretend that Justin is taking one very long nap in the great, blue sky? Would that make it more palatable for others?
Because in the end, that’s what this is all about: not making anyone else uncomfortable; taking a lumpy, ugly, unwieldy topic and petting it into a pretty ball of Play-Doh. The other night, at dinner, a friend of Alex's blurted out how strange it was that his dad wasn’t around. His parents gasped, then glared, then eyed me apologetically, minutes away from dragging their poor child out for a tongue-lashing. It was up to me, as always, to defuse the situation. In a sing-song glassy voice, I stayed on message: “Alex’s dad died of a brain tumor, and we miss him very much and wish he was here, but he’s not.” The parents promptly changed the subject.
Interestingly, it’s many of the adults in my life who have the most difficulty accepting, and talking about, my dead husband. Maybe it hits too close to home. Maybe it’s discomfiting. Maybe it’s just easier to talk about Gucci’s new fall bags. Maybe they simply don’t know what to say, and thus, say nothing. But just once, I wish someone would ask me what I miss most about him, what we’d maybe be doing if he was alive, what kind of father I think he would have become.
My job, too, has its moments of death-defying weirdness. I talk to famous people for a living, and sometimes real life intrudes. One celebrity, who is familiar with my history, told me that of anyone she knows, I’m entitled to as much wine as I wanted — and together, we drank to the vagaries of health and luck. Another one asked me what my husband did for a living. When I told him that, in fact, he’d been an engineer before he died, the actor — a smooth-talking charmer — stumbled over his words and stuttered multiple apologies. But he’s sorry for what? Apologizing is nice, polite even, but it again leaves me as the one to smooth over any rough conversational edges.
So let me speak up in defense of discomfort. It’s the thorny topics, the icky ones, that connect us as humans, that bond us as friends, that allow us to skim past surface chatter and dive deeper. If you don’t know, or acknowledge, my story, you don’t know me. Or my child. And life isn’t all pretty outfits and frose. It’s understanding that my son doesn’t have a father to teach him to ride a bike, or maneuverer down a ski slope, or what the birds and bees mean.
Living as a widow is gut-wrenchingly lonely — most nights, after bedtime, it’s me and my one-eyed cat, rendering me a breathing, walking, British thriller-loving, Catastrophe-watching cliche. Being solely responsible for your child’s financial wellbeing is terrifying, especially in this job market. And that’s without the added burden of serving as two parents in one, of somehow providing your son with a male role model when you’re a single mom muddling your way through, simultaneously being disciplinarian and playmate.
A friend of mine recently suggested that I perhaps take down a few photos of Justin, that it's time to move forward. She means well, and I know she worries that I'm trapped in emotional quicksand. But memories aren't the same as being stuck in a quagmire. Talking about death is not the same as wallowing. And I don't think there's any right answer. I'm trying my best, and even that feels like an insurmountable task sometimes. But kids have no such qualms. “I’m really sad that you don’t have a daddy,” Alex’s best friend said, quietly wrapping an arm around him.
Same here.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about or passing on kids, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.

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