Talking about death and other difficult topics with toddlers.
In 2005 I lost my father in a traumatic and unexpected accident. My life was transformed in an instant. It was the moment that changed the direction of the rest of my life; there was literally life before and life after that October day.
Since becoming a mom, my father has become both extremely present and ironically even further away. My son, now three years old, has begun to not only resemble my father in some of his silly expressions but also in his passionate and adventurous spirit. I tell my son tales about his Grandpa Michael as they relate to his life, and I’ve watched as my dad has become like a character in a good storybook. We point to pictures in our home and ask him who it is. He answers clearly and somehow knows that Grandpa Michael is connected to Grandma (my two parents). I don’t know exactly how or when that connection was made, but there are some subtleties that he seems to understand. And yet with every story told and every Grandpa Michael reference made, I’m painfully reminded again, that he is not here. With every sweet or joyful moment is its reflection of loss and sadness. He is not here to share our life with us.
When my father passed away, I began to mourn all the things we would never share together and my child is certainly one of those things. But the subject of how to bring him to life for my future progeny is something I didn’t exactly consider. Why would I? There’s no way that at 25 years old I could’ve understood how inquisitive a toddler can be.
Determining the ways and reasons for sharing this information with my son has made me realize how many subjects can feel difficult, overwhelming and outright confusing for us to explain to our kids. Subjects like divorce, death of both people and pets, changes in school and home can all feel intense to discuss with these very intelligent and very literal little people. Our words have to be chosen carefully which puts even more weight on our shoulders to say it right.
I rarely go to my father’s grave mostly because I don’t see it as the place that he IS. But on some occasions I feel drawn magnetically there, a place to meditate on all that’s happened since he’s been gone, and of course, to contemplate all the ways that I miss him. This past winter, I brought my son to visit “the place where we go to remember Grandpa Michael.” My husband and I agreed that we should begin to share these spaces with him and let it be simply part of what we do from time to time.
As we stepped out of the car, Micah (clearly named for his Grandfather) asked, and logically so, where Grandpa Michael is. We spotted a man nearby visiting a loved one’s gravesite and Micah pointed asking if that was Grandpa Michael. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.
In my mind I had prepared myself for these moments: how I would bring my father alive for my son through stories and anecdotes, how I would show him that I miss him through honest emotion but not too much heaviness. And yet my son’s extremely simple questions threw me a bit. I hope I answered them in the clearest way possible without confusing him.
Micah: Where is Grandpa Michael?
Me: He is everywhere. When we think about him, when we miss him, we can feel him. When we come to this place, we get to think about him even more if we want to.
Micah: Is That Grandpa Michael? (referring to the man visiting the cemetery near by)
Me: No, that’s not Grandpa Michael. Though I wish it was!
Micah: But where is Grandpa Michael?
Me: He’s not in his body anymore, but he’s with us all the time because we love and remember him!
And our conversation went in some circles all around his simple and straightforward questions. The answers however aren’t quite as easy!
Often when I leave the cemetery I feel a little emotionally lost, unsure where to place my feelings. Nine years later, I still find it all hard to digest. But on this day, I didn’t feel particularly sad. Instead I was aware of my son’s curiosity and that we were now in an ongoing dialogue. I wasn’t sure if my words were the right ones, but I know they came from a place that was honest and true to my beliefs about death and our loved ones: If we feel love for them, they are still with us. That, at my core, is what I want to communicate to my son.
The loss of my father continues to shape who I’m becoming. My heart warms in moments when Micah will randomly associate something with my dad. I smile because I know that my stories are sinking into his sponge of a brain and his big open heart.
In some way, these two most special men in my life are getting to know one another. And that’s a process and discussion I can trust in.