first person

Talking to My Toddler About Death

Photo: TEERASAK KHUNRACH/Shutterstock

Last summer, my daughter watched a dog kill a baby chick named Goldilocks. The scene of the crime was the garden of her day care, a dazzling place full of apple trees and winding pathways. I came into the aftermath, surprised to find my daughter tear-stained and panicked. Perhaps I should have been upset, but I wasn’t.

“Well,” I said, patting her head. “That happens.” After all, the previous summer, one of our own chickens had been killed by a neighbor’s prized golden retriever.

When I was a kid a few years older than my daughter is now, I buried my dead pets beneath the lilac bush outside our kitchen window. I like to think all those animal deaths prepared me for what was next: the human deaths, of which there were many. Grandmothers and aunts, a friend’s mother. A boy I knew drowned under a dock. Another shot himself in the head. A third, my brother’s best friend, was killed in a rock-climbing accident. My mother’s family was Catholic and we attended rosaries frequently, praying over open caskets. If we didn’t talk with abandon about these deaths, at least they were there, impossible to deny.

All of this, and my own mother’s death, which loomed large over 12 years of cancer, made me think I had some kind of insider’s knowledge; that at the very least I could explain a dead chicken to a child.

It took the Goldilocks incident, and a 3-year-old’s affinity for questioning, for me to realize I was wrong. Walking home from day care that afternoon, my daughter was solemn, repeating over and over the information she had.

“The dog bit the chicken and now its body doesn’t work anymore, so it’s dead,” she said.

“That’s true.”


“Sometimes that happens with animals.”

“But not people?”

“People, too. But it’s different.”


I had nothing. Or at least,  nothing good.

Talking about how we don’t talk about death seems to be a hot topic right now. There’s the Death Positive movement, some TED Talks, even a performance series called You’re Going to Die, which advertises itself as “unabashedly sourcing our shared mortality.” Fascination with death isn’t a new thing, of course. But until recently, in our culture, it’s also been taboo; a curiosity about death was considered a morbid equivalent to an affinity for darkness.

These days, in our house, I’d say we’re on trend. As if being a parent weren’t enough of a lesson in mortality, the physical evidence of death is everywhere. The dead bugs, so many of them, dramatic on their backs, stiff legs pointed to the sky. A squirrel in the street. A withering houseplant. “That’s dead,” my daughter announces in the meat aisle, and then breaks into a song. It’s to the the tune of “Baby Shark,” but the only word is “dead.”

Every day, we review who died, who’s going to die, whether something is dead, why, when, and where. Riding bikes to the river one evening, we passed a dead magpie, beak crushed, wings stretched as if in mid-flight, and for the remainder of the warm, sunny evening, my husband and I answered questions about the bird. Patiently, at first. Yes, the bird is dead, why, because its body doesn’t work anymore. But why? Maybe it got old, we don’t know for sure. Maybe we could talk about something else?

On the way home, she demanded we stop to see if the bird was still there. We tried to trick her by taking a different route. She noticed, objected, and we again stopped at the bird carcass, hair dripping with river water. “Maybe you want to put a flower on the bird,” I told her, relenting. She did. It was a weed, actually. I admired the way she got close to the bird, though I hoped she wouldn’t notice any maggots. This must be the way we should talk about death. In the middle of the street, on what might be the last warm night of the year, when we’d rather talk about anything else.

And so I’ve been trying. One night, over strawberry shortcake, when my daughter announced she didn’t like whipped cream, I told her that my mother, for whom she is named, didn’t like it either. Aside from being slightly annoyed that someone shared her name, my daughter was mostly uninterested in this information.

“Where’s your mom now?” she asked, suspiciously taking the bait, eating the whipped cream she doesn’t like.

“She’s dead,” I told her.

The next day, in the quiet of the library, the baby cooed and clapped for strangers and my daughter announced in her booming voice: “Your mom is dead. She died.”

“It’s true,” I said, watching, with interest, as the the smiles faded around us.

“Your mom died,” my daughter confirmed, nodding her head. “But why?”

“She was sick.” I can’t help the practiced, overly matter-of-fact tone that’s crept into my voice (for her, for the strangers looking up from their books, for myself?). “It happened a long, long time ago.”

Another day, another week, she went to a dinner party with her dad. “My mom had a mom once,” she informed a table full of people she didn’t really know. “But she died, and now she doesn’t have a mom.” My husband told me this, and I was sad, because it’s so simple and so final, and I’d never really thought about it in quite that way.

It’s possible that this is a phase. Most things are. Before death it was baby kitties. Maybe someday we’ll laugh over the memory of our daughter hunched over tiny carcasses, like a miniature Wednesday Addams in a faded Hello Kitty nightgown. But I find myself hoping that she continues, somehow, to talk about death in this way that is so different from the way I do, in which curiosity, rather than fear, is the operating emotion.

Eventually, the inevitable: My daughter started asking if I am going to die. I told her I will, though not for a very long time. (An uncertainty, my conscious chimed in, smugly.) My own mother’s refrain had always been I’m not going to die tomorrow. This was comforting, until, of course, one day she did.

I was prepared to soothe, but my daughter was only momentarily pensive before cheerfully suggesting that I pretend I’m dead.

“How did I die,” I asked.

“You got bit,” she said. “Go lay down.”

And so I did, my back on the floor, eyes closed, while my daughter looked on. It was quieter than it had been all day.

Talking to My Toddler About Death