I’ll never forget the day I had to sit my daughter Amelia down and discuss death with her. It was cold and rainy outside, yet warm and toasty inside — i.e. it was stereotypical. It was surreal. It was the type of weather you would expect to see in a movie during a moment like this. The stage was set, all we had to do was speak. All my husband and I had to do was improvise the dialogue and have The Conversation. When it came down to it, though, the only words I could muster seemed so callous and cold. Death seemed far too harsh and too real for a two-year-old child. For our two-year-old baby girl.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I jump into The Conversation, I should probably share a bit about Shadow — my 14-year-old cat, and my daughter’s best friend.
I adopted Shadow — a.k.a. Kitty, Yosh Cat, Doctor Katz, and Mama Cats — when I was just 18 years old. She was my constant companion through good times, bad times, and really really bad times. She never judged me or hurt me; she only offered me love — and endless snuggles. When my daughter was born, Shadow’s heart only grew: she became my daughter’s snuggle buddy, and her protector. She became an integral part of our family; she became Amelia’s surrogate mom. (Seriously; this cat would lay with my daughter on her breastfeeding pillow almost every time I fed her, every day, for nine months.)
Unfortunately, their relationship wouldn’t last very long, because Mama Cats wouldn’t make it. You see, shortly after my daughter started talking and walking, Shadow became sick. Nothing bad, just an upset stomach here and — well — loose stools there. But before long, it escalated: She was vomiting multiple times a day. She couldn’t keep anything in her stomach down. She was losing weight. And soon, she was knocking on death’s door. (My husband knew it, and I knew it.)
And then it came: We had to make a decision; i.e. The Decision.
Before long, we were in the car — on that cold, wet, and rainy day — driving Kitty to the vet. We were taking our Shadow to be “put down.”
The good news is, we had about 48 hours to prepare, which meant I had 48 hours to hold her and snuggle. To cry. To say goodbye. But no matter how prepared I was for the moment, I wasn’t prepared to talk to my daughter.
I tried to be, though: I spent two days Googling “how to talk to a toddler about death.” Some articles were very straight-forward and matter of fact — and by that I mean, they basically told me toddlers are unable to understand death. Period. End of discussion. Other articles advised me not to discuss the matter at all; they told me I should avoid the subject altogether. (Or at least avoid it until she asked me, or she asked us.) And still other articles I read directed us toward religious or spiritual explanations, suggesting I tell her things like, “Shadow is still with us,” “Shadow is watching down,” or “Shadow may be gone, but she is OK because Shadow went to Heaven.”
But I didn’t want to lie to her. I wanted to level with her; and I wanted to be as honest with her as possible. And so, after getting back from the vet, my husband and I sat our daughter down on the kitchen floor to tell her “where Kitty had gone.” My husband spoke while I sat silent and still because my husband found the words I couldn’t; my husband explained why Kitty wouldn’t be coming home.
“Come here, sweetheart,” he said. “Daddy wants to explain something to you.”
My daughter sat down beside us, plopped her Little Mermaid book on her lap, and flipped through while my husband paused and took a breath.
“Today Kitty went bye-bye,” he continued. “Kitty was sick, and she died.”
My husband paused, waiting for some reaction, some question … something. But there was nothing. Just silence: stagnant, awkward, and painful silence. And so he continued.
“Dying is when your body doesn’t work anymore,” he told her. “Kitty was old, and her body stopped working. It’s nothing to be scared of, eventually everyone’s body stops working, but it’s OK to be sad or miss her. It’s OK to be upset.”
Another pause. Another empty and silent space.
“You won’t see Kitty again, but you can still remember her up here,” my husband said as he nestled his sausage-like fingers between my daughter’s golden curls and poked ever so gently on her head.
“Kitty’s gone. Kitty won’t be coming home. Do you understand?”
My daughter thought for a moment, looked at the book in her lap, and parroted: “Kitty gone? Kitty no coming home?”
“That’s right, baby,” he said. “Kitty’s not coming home.”
She looked at her father, looked at me, and said OK with a tone of sadness that broke my heart. Then she bounded off to her bedroom. She went right back to her toys — her friends — and to playing pretend.
The thing is, there is no right way or wrong way to explain death to a toddler (or to any child for that matter). While it is true “young toddlers are unable to understand death — especially its implications or permanence,” according to Laura Betts (LICSW, MSW) “they are deeply aware of the feelings of the adults around them … If the family member was a close relation (or a daily presence), your toddler will be aware that that person is no longer there and will ask for and feel a sense of loss for that relative.”
So, for use, confronting the matter was important. Being as transparent, and patient, as possible was important. Honesty was important. And talking about our feelings — working through our feelings — was important. Because we didn’t want to skate around the issue or soften the blow: We wanted her to know death wasn’t (and isn’t) scary. We wanted her to know her emotions were OK. We wanted her to understand why Mommy and Daddy were crying, why Mommy wasn’t OK. And we wanted her to grief was OK. Completely normal and totally OK.
It has now been six months since Shadow’s passing and “The Death” talk. Sometimes I still struggle to say like “he died” or “she died” (like, um, during The Lion King and The Land Before Time because hello, how freakin’ sad are those scenes). But I struggle because of my own discomfort, my own fears, my own emotions. My two-year-old on the other hand, greets the word “death” as she would “door” or “light” — it’s simply an object. A thing. Something that happens.
And for that, I couldn’t be more thankful. For that I couldn’t be more proud.More On