It isn’t always easy to understand what death is for a toddler. I know my Son understands it now, and my heart breaks for him, because I understand what he is going through. I went through the same thing when I was about his age.
The first time a beloved animal died, I really did not understand what death was. I remember my parents brought our beloved Dog Mercedes, home in a Garbage bag to bury in our pet cemetery. My parents tried to explain that she was gone and had gone to be with Jesus, (I went to church so I understand who Jesus was) but I did not not understand that physically she would be gone forever. She looked peacefully like she was sleeping.
A while later my Aunt Louise died. Her funeral was the first funeral I remember attending. She looked like she was sleeping, but it was then that something clicked. She wasn’t getting up to kiss me, or take me out for ice cream like she promised me, the last time I saw her. It was then I realized she was gone and was sleeping forever. I remember being sad, and missing her. I wished we could go get ice cream one more time, but I realized it was not happening. She was gone.
My son lost a cat that he absolutely adored when he was about a year old. Grey boy, my Son called him grey-go. Grey-Go had cancer, and he knew he was sick and cried and said Grey go sad. When he passed, I told him he went to be with Jesus and is sleeping forever. I don’t think he understood until a couple of weeks later. For two or three weeks he looked everywhere for Grey. “Where are you?” He would say. When he was about two he told me he was he was sad because Grey-Go went to be with Jesus and he is sleeping forever.
A year later, I know he understands. Sitting at my Grandmother’s memorial service, he is holding onto the bulletin for dear life. It has a picture of his Great Grandma on it. He says it’s great Grammy. He cuddles up to me and sees everyone is sad. He knows. He is a wild boy the next couple days, I then realized it is because he is dealing with a lot.
The day after, he cuddles up to me in the morning and tells me he sees Great-Grandma in the doorway, and on the ceiling and carries her picture around with him everywhere close to his heart. I’m almost certain at this point it is a way that he is trying to deal with his grief, he doesn’t want her to be gone.
He talkes about how he misses her and about his third birthday coming up, and how he wants Great Grandma at his party. Later, as he is taking his bath, he gets this sad look on his face and tells me he is sad. I ask him why? He says, Grandma went to be with Grey-Go and Jesus. She not sick anymore.
Then I recalled the moment that I remembered understanding I would never see my Aunt Louise again and how difficult it was for me to rationalize that.
We cuddled after bathtime. I held my Son and told him it was ok to be sad. He said Mommy sad too, and I said Yes baby, I am, and it’s ok to be sad. Through tears, we looked at pictures of My Son and his Great Grandmother, and talked about the times we shared together as a family. That is what has always gotten me through. The happy memories that we have shared together as a family. I hope that it also helps my Son too, to be thankful that he got to spend that precious time with her.
I kissed my Son and Thanked God that he at least got the opportunity to spend some time with his Great Grandmother, no matter how short that was, and remembered how difficult it was for me the first time I finally understood what death was. I remembered what it was like to experience it from the perspective of a toddler.
What does it mean to be alive? Is a question we need to ask ourselves and our toddlers, and a conversation we need to have with them, that way when we have to explain what death is, and what it means, they can understand. More important, is the ability to understand it is ok to be sad, it’s ok to miss someone, and to be sad because you will not be able to make new memories with them.