How (Not) to Explain Death to a Toddler

When my toddler asked about death, I tried to be honest.

Now that Sweet G is almost three, 95 percent of the time I spend caring for him is allotted to explaining the workings of the world, the mind, and the body. It rains when the sky fills up with water. Your mind is the part of you that fills up with thoughts and ideas. We poop when our butts fill up with the food our body doesn’t need. It amounts to some of the best conversations I’ve ever had and some of the most acute stress I’ve ever felt.

Sometimes I end up worried that I’ve skewed my son’s worldview so drastically that no one—not even the therapist I’m inadvertently pushing him toward—will be able to realign it. In fact, I’m certain that I did some actual damage last year when I tried to explain life and death to Sweet G, who had just turned two. 

The D Word

It all began with a flower. Barely two-years-old, Sweet G had the freshest of fresh perspectives. Everything was wondrous—rocks, sticks, cat turds turning to fool’s biscotti in the sun. Bright and unusual, our neighbor’s flower was clearly the most amazing thing Sweet G had ever seen.

“Look!” he said, pointing and stumbling over the rocks lining the sidewalk as he lunged at a singular pink bud peeking out of a wide bed of dark ivy at the edge of our neighbor’s yard.  

I steered him back onto the sidewalk and away from the “pitty flowa.” For the next several months, we stopped to look at it on our daily walks. It lengthened, opened, and stretched toward the sunlight filtering through the elm towering above it.

At first Sweet G accepted the changes, but, when the flower began to droop, he demanded an explanation. Deciding on the spot not to sugarcoat the situation, I told him the truth. “It’s dying and will soon be dead,” I said as plainly as possible.

“Dead?” he asked.


“Where?” he said after a few seconds of intense squinting.

“Back into the earth.”




“Everything that grows eventually turns brown.”



After more squinting, he toddled away in the direction of the park. But the look on his face told me the conversation wasn’t over.

Great-Grandma Bert Turns Brown

Soon after the flower finally folded under the ivy and I thought our conversations about life and death would subside, my grandmother got sick.

As we planned a visit to Pennsylvania, where she lives, Sweet G started stringing a new strand of whys.

“We are going to Pennsylvania to see your Great Grandma Bert,” I said when he asked why I was packing suitcases.


“She’s sick.”


“She’s getting old.”


Trying to put it into words he’d understand, I blurted, “She’s turning brown.”


“Yes. Like our neighbor’s flower,” I said as I thought again of Sweet G’s future therapist and the pile of money he or she will make off my parenting mistakes.

“She is?”


“Oh. Is she dead?” Gryphon frowned.

“No. Not yet,” I said, trying to honest. “But, don’t worry. Her doctor will make her better.”

“Oh. Can I bring toys?”

“Of course you can.”

“Maybe teddy will make her feel better,” he said.

“Good idea,” I said, proud that he wanted to help, but terrified that he would show up at her bedside and demand to know why she was turning brown. To be safe, I spent much of the five-hour drive coaching him on what he might say. And, to be extra safe, we skipped the flowers and brought her ice cream instead.

How did you explain the concept of life and death to your child?


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