How to Explain Death to a Two-Year Old

My hope is this post helps another parent or caregiver out there one day.

A few years back my brother met and married a wonderful, sassy, intelligent, Jesus-loving woman blessed with more gumption than most of us possess.  She also happened to have multiple disabilities, and had battled and defeated a life-threatening condition.  She bet the odds and lived life with gusto.

To her deep sorrow, she was unable to have children and so she poured her love into the children around her.  She worked with children, and was very popular with them.  Knowing she could not have children of her own, my husband and I never hesitated to ask her to be godmother to our children.  We knew that she would not only love them, but she would pray for them and help them in their own walk with God.  She cried when she received a ‘Godmother’s day’ present on Mother’s Day.  Holding a special role in our children’s life meant a great deal to her.  And my goodness, how she loved our children.  Their welfare was always at the forefront of her mind, they were often at the top of her prayer list, and a visit with them made her day.  She and my brother once took Sausage to a park and when they returned I was unsure who had enjoyed the outing more, so wide were all the smiles.

But her time ran out.  She developed liver cancer and after a courageous battle, she passed away.

Chip was only a few weeks old at the time, and Sausage was not quite two.  Along with my own heavy heart, I felt sad for my children, particularly Sausage.  

Her inability to really understand what was going on meant she could not grieve for her Auntie, whom she loved very much.

This compounded my own sorrow.  Sausage was so special to her Auntie at one point during her illness when she had been unresponsive for hours, it was Sausage who elicited a ‘hello beautiful’ and a smile from her.  I’m sad that Sausage will not remember her Auntie, nor will she be able to truly appreciate just how much her Auntie loved her.  For Sausage and Chip, she will be someone in a photograph, someone talked about at family gatherings, someone visited at the cemetery.

I have a few degrees under my belt – and studied human development in depth – so I was aware of what Sausage would and would not be able to comprehend.  Two-year olds have limited concepts of time and permanency so it is important to try and explain death in terms that they can understand.

Here are some tips to help your two-year old deal with death:

  • Realise that they will be a little familiar with death already.  The average two-year old will have seen dead bugs or other animals, had fairy stories read to them where someone dies, or have seen it on TV or in a movie (let’s face, pretty much every Disney movie has a death in it…).  My point is, they won’t have a blank slate when it comes to death.  But, as children are great observers and poor interpreters, they may have wrong ideas about what death actually means.  Which is why it is important to…
  • Explain what happened to their loved one in very simple terms.  I explained that Auntie had died because she was very sick, which meant that her body didn’t work anymore, and that we wouldn’t see Auntie again.  I also explained that everyone was very sad because Auntie had died.  Two-year olds will be happy with the bare minimum of information – they don’t need to know that ‘Cousin Bob fought bravely’ or that ‘Uncle Joe had leukemia’.
  • Don’t expect them to ‘get’ it.  Even after you’ve explained that a loved one has died, and what death means, they probably won’t get that death is a permanent thing.  Permanency is a pretty big concept to get their little heads around.  Be prepared for them to ask after your loved one for weeks and months after the death.
  • Expect to go over what death means many times as they grow up.  Never stop explaining what it means until you are sure your child fully understands.  Somewhat bizarrely, children can often feel responsible for someone’s death, so it is vital they know it was not their fault.  Likewise they need to know that they/you/whomever are not going to die anytime soon.  And – particularly if they know someone died of an illness – that they will not ‘catch’ it.
  • Avoid euphemisims.  Telling a two-year old that someone has ‘gone to sleep’ or has ‘passed away’ is only going to confuse your tot.  Please, just say ‘Grandma died’.
  • Leave religion out of it.  Even though I am a Christian and believe that I will see my sister-in-law again one day, I did not say that her Auntie was ‘in heaven’ or ‘with Jesus’ or anything like that.  Even if you believe in an afterlife, your tot won’t understand what that means for years to come, so save it for when they are older.  Telling a child that ‘God has taken Grandad up to heaven’ may confuse or even scare a child.
  • Talk about your own feelings.  It can be very frightening for children to see a caregiver cry.  Let them know why you are upset or crying.  I told Sausage that I was ‘crying because I was sad that Auntie had died, and I wouldn’t be able to see her anymore’.
  • Be prepared for a number of different reactions.  Some children may get upset or cry, while others may carry on as normal.  Sausage was her usual self throughout the aftermath of her Aunt’s death.  Some toddlers may get clingy and whiny because YOU are upset.  Or because (depending on who died) their daily routine has been put out of whack.
  • If you are taking them to the funeral, prepare them for what will happen.  Whether you take your two-year old to a funeral or not is a personal decision.  Some people don’t because they need that time to grieve and say goodbye without having half their brain attuned to their wriggly toddler.  Other people take their kids as they think it will give them closure (I’m not going to lie, at this age it won’t), or in the knowledge that their child’s presence will be a light in the midst of darkness.  I know that I find the presence of young life comforting when I attend funerals.  If you take them, explain to them beforehand in as simple terms as possible, what will happen, who will be there, and what a coffin is (or whatever funeral/burial ritual your loved one has).  While it is worth explaining to them that lots of people will be upset, and maybe crying, don’t expect it to affect them.  It may or it may not.  At her Auntie’s funeral Sausage was most taken with the church organ (and still occasionally mentions it) and wasn’t at all perturbed by crying people.
  • If you can arrange it, have a babysitter come and take them away afterwards.  Interments, wakes etc are long and boring for toddlers.  Seeing a coffin descend into the ground and covered with dirt won’t give your two-year old any greater sense of closure.  Let them go home to play while you catch up with friends and family.
  • Make a point of telling stories of your loved one as your child grows up.  Even if they can’t remember the person, knowing about their wider family helps children feel connected.  My children will grow up with stories of their Auntie, who loved them ferociously.   Who loved their Uncle.  Who was an inspiration to many people.  I’d like to think that maybe, when they hear these stories, my kids will feel even just a fraction of the love their Auntie gave them, and be blessed by it.