How I Talked to my Three Year Olds About Death

My dad died last Saturday. He was ill for the last couple years, with a steady decline in the last six months. It was horrible for me to watch and even more horrible for me to contemplate explaining this to my sons.

Saturday came and he was on in-home hospice care. We brought the boys over and spent the day there. I do not regret this because the boys got to spend the day with our family and we all surrounded my dad with love the day he died. He even opened his eyes and smiled when Declan came in and said Hi Poppy when we arrived in the morning.

My boys are very intuitive and they knew Poppy was sick because he was laying in my parents bed, and not talking to them. They were timid at first being in the room, and then as the day progressed and they were outside running around with their cousin and we were all acting as normal as we could…they started running in and out of the room to check on Poppy.

Jackson left a purple flower on his bed.

Later in the evening they left and Jackson said “Good-bye Poppy” loudly.

About an hour later my dad died. I think he waited for them to leave.

Then we had to figure out how to tell our sons. Poppy was a constant fixture for them for three years, and toddlers have a concrete vision of our world.

Sidetrack: My cousin sent me what I refer to as “Death books” about three weeks before my dad passed. They are children’s books specific to speaking about death. I hadn’t looked at them yet because I wasn’t ready to and my wife and I joked about the “Death books” as they came prior to us coming to terms with the fact that he was dying. I pulled them out of the box and held one up and said, “Look babe, they got their first death books!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I finally visited the death books and talked to my sister and sister-in-law about how they talked to my niece. They used the heaven version and that she has guardian angels. The books did give me some good language to use and I agreed with the tactic of being concrete, not saying “he went to sleep and won’t wake up” because that seems like a set-up for a phobia of sleep.

We are not religious. But the heaven/sky/angel version of death is a positive one. I’m down with that. My wife came into my room the morning after Poppy died and told me she tried telling Declan about Poppy when he asked to go see him.

Declan came trotting in after her and said, “Poppy in the sky Mama?” So for lack of  a better explanation I said “Yes”. He’s in heaven which is I suppose in the sky. He accepted that and we moved on for the day.

Later in the evening though he and Jackson brought up Poppy, and Declan again asked about the sky. I told them that “Poppy’s body stopped working. He was very sick and sometimes when some one is older and sick their body stops working. So we would not be able to actually see Poppy or talk with him, but that he is watching over us all from Heaven.” I did use the term “died” at one point, I think later in the week.

They seemed to accept this. And since Saturday they’ve asked about it, and we’ve sat and talked, and I’ve cried and my wife has cried in front of them both, and we say, “We miss Poppy, and it makes us sad, and it’s okay if you are sad too.” And they generally give us hugs and move on.

Then today in the car Declan said, “Poppy’s body was hurting?” I said “Yes baby, he was hurting,” and then Jackson said, “We go see Poppy and Ba? I mean, we go see Ba? (Ba is Gramma)”. And I burst into tears. Because he gets it. He gets that he won’t see Poppy again. Then Declan asked me if my body was hurting, and I said “No baby, and Mommy’s isn’t either.”

Gramma came over last night, and they told her Poppy was in the sky, and she agreed. Her being here alone I think cemented it for them that we wouldn’t see Poppy again.

Grief is heavy. So heavy it feels like a weighted blanket on top of me all the time. But to grieve and have small children is awful. They rip off the band-aid every time it starts to stick a little. They don’t mean to, but they randomly bring up Poppy and they catch me off guard and it’s like a knife to the heart every time.

I’m glad that they understand and I feel like we have a parenting win with this whole explaining death thing to two toddlers. But as a daughter who lost her Dad, it’s incredibly painful. Because when they ask about Poppy I’m supposed to be a strong Mama, when really I just want to be a daughter crippled with grief. But I can’t be.

This is the stuff no one tells you about parenting. My heart goes out to any parent who has lost a loved one who has small children because to keep showing up as a parent in these dark days is the one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.