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Helping a Toddler Process Death

Bren working with his Papa

After a five year battle with cancer, my father passed away a week and a half ago. We were grateful that he was peaceful and that we got to be with him as a family. It was early in the morning, so my kids were asleep, and when they woke up we had to share the news with them that their Papa had died.

I didn’t know how they would react and it’s definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a mom. But, I was amazed at how much my son seemed to be aware of what was happening and understand even though he’s only 2 1/2 years old.

The evening before, my sisters, mom and I were sitting together in my dad’s room and Bren had come in to sit and snuggle with us. As he got up to leave, he stopped ever so slightly, looked back over his shoulder, waved, and said, “Love you, Papa.” It was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen, especially since my dad was unresponsive at that point, so he didn’t answer back, and it completely broke my heart.

That morning, after my dad passed, we took my kids in to see him, and Bren said, “Bye Papa, I love you Papa.” which, of course, caused my tears to flow freely.

A little while later, he made his way back into the room where my mom was sitting, climbed up on her lap, and said, “I wish Papa didn’t have to ever die.”  I was in the other room listening, and again, my heart broke into a million pieces.

And after my father’s body was taken to the funeral home, Bren wanted to check Papa’s bed and, finding it empty, he put his head in his hands down on the bed. I asked him if he was sad, and he said yes with a long and sad face.

As overwhelmed as I am with grief, it has been amazing, interesting, and so hard to watch my children deal with this in their own way. It hurts me to watch my kids be sad and hurt. I don’t know if my son will really have any memories of that day, and it makes me so sad to think that he may not remember his Papa at all. But for this time, I am encouraging him that it’s okay to be sad and to experience this in the way that he needs to.

I want to raise a son who, like his Papa, is not afraid to experience and express his emotions. I just wish that he didn’t have to experience a death in the family at such a young age.

Have you had to explain death to your toddler? How have you helped them to process through their emotions?

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