“Where’d Grampi Go?” – Talking to Toddlers About Death

This is a guest post written for Totsy.com.

Where Grampi go Mommy?”

Those four words have rang out frequently in our house as of late. You see my Dad passed away on January 10th, at the age of 73 after battling to recover from an aneurysm 14 months prior. He and my 2.5 year old Aspen were close. Oddly close, my Mom and I both remarked, considering she was the most persnickety toddler we’d ever known. She does favors for no one, and to land on her A-list, even beloved Grandmas & Uncles would have to “put in their time” over and over again during every visit.

But not with Grampi. For some reason he had an all-access pass to the Aspen show. She would pass by a lineup of eager bystanders flashing only a cold shoulder, on her way to climb up on Grampi’s lap and read a book with him. She would sit next to him on the couch, watching him quietly…especially after he became ill, like somehow she knew instinctively that he needed extra attention.

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Aspen has happy memories of her Grampi, and we want to reinforce those memories. We don’t want her to forget him. And the fact that she still asks “Mommy where’s Grampi?” on a daily basis more than 2 months later, must mean that she’s having trouble processing where in the heck Grampi went.

So…how do you talk to toddlers about death? We’ve read countless articles and held numerous family conferences about how to handle this moment in our lives with her. We don’t want to sugarcoat it, nor do we want to scare her.

If we tell her he “got sick”, will she worry that she might die every time she gets sick?

If we tell her he had to “go away”…will she worry that Mommy or Daddy will die every time we have to go away for a few days?

I tried saying, “Grampi’s body was broken baby, he got too old and his body stopped working so he can’t be with us anymore”. She understood that pretty well until she found some old pictures of him on my desk, looking young and healthy and she said, “See Mommy, Grampi not die, he’s just at the store.”

Every time she asks, my stomach turns into a knot and my heart breaks all over again. What I want to do is fall to my knees, and with tears streaming through sobs, hug her tightly and say “I don’t know baby, Grampi isn’t here anymore and I TOO want to know where he is. I miss him too and I wish I could tell you where he was, but I don’t even know myself.”

But obviously that would be scary for her, and sad for us both and admittedly a little melodramatic.  So I hold myself back.

And for now I’m trying out a different tactic, care of our wonderful babysitter and mother of two. Now I tell Aspen “Grampi isn’t here with us anymore baby, he went to heaven and became a star. Now he can watch over you forever, and anytime you miss him or want to see him, all you have to do is look up at the sky and talk to him. And he’ll be there. He’ll hear you, he just can’t talk back.

She seems to accept this explanation. It gives her a visible place to look for him, a tangible something that she can see and “feel” even though touching it is out of her reach.

So last night we went out on the balcony and I let her choose Grampi’s star. After a careful deliberation she picked the brightest star & right shoulder of the constellation “Orion”. Oddly enough – my Dad’s strong, brightly tanned shoulders are among the most vivid memories of him from my childhood.

My Dad’s death, and her Grampi’s resulting absence from Aspen’s life is very new. Who knows how her questions will evolve or whether this explanation will continue to work for her. But for now at least, she seems to be at peace with it, so I’m trying to be as well. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 16 months, it’s that today is all we have anyway.
With love, humility & stars in my eyes,How do others deal with this? Have you lost someone in your family recently, and how did you help your little ones process it?

Autumn

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