“Hey bubs, guess who’s coming over this weekend.” It was a simple question for my toddler, asked in an effort to make conversation and prolong our 110th listening of the Little Mermaid soundtrack.
“Oh, I know,” she responded, her eyes smiling.
“Who’s coming over?” I repeated.
“It’s my sister, Dorothy. She will come play.”
Gripping the steering wheel a little tighter, I braced myself for the conversation ahead.
“No bubs, it’s not Dorothy. Your sister can’t come over.”
Here’s the thing, I usually have no problem being honest with my daughter about her sister who died. Even so, there’s always a tiny bit of doubt that creeps in. Am I sharing too much? Is it okay to be so honest with a two-year-old? Does she really need to know about a person she’s never met?
The answer is yes. My daughter knows who Dorothy is. She knows that she’s her sister. And she also knows she is not here because she has died.
She knows these things because I believe It’s okay to talk about death with kids. It’s okay to use the words, “dead” and “died.” It’s okay for us to cry and share how much we miss those who are no longer with us. Actually, I think these things are more than okay. They are necessary.
They are necessary conversations because siblings grieve too. And while my daughter is still a little too young to understand why her sister died, she understands that she’s not here. She tells us that she misses her. She wants to know where she is and why she can’t come over to play. So, we honor her grief by talking honestly and openly.
For anyone who disagrees, I want them to know that I used to think differently. I once thought that children should be sheltered from the idea of death. I thought it was too scary. Why fill their minds with thoughts of death and dying?
Then, my baby died. And when she died, I saw how scared everyone was to talk about her death. I felt the fear and stigma that shrouded her existence. No one wanted to talk about my dead baby which meant that no one wanted to talk about my baby. The only ones who dared to ask about her were the students I worked with. However, anytime they brought up the topic of my dead daughter there was usually an adult around to admonish them and change the subject. I saw firsthand how much children naturally understood about grief and I also witnessed how quick adults were to silence them from talking about it.
It was that experience which changed my perspective. I vowed that if I was ever privileged to raise a living child, they would understand that grief is natural. They would know that death is sad and it is always okay to miss the people who aren’t here. My family would not turn away from those who need us because of our own fears. Instead, we would hold close those who were scared. Death happens. We can’t protect children from knowing that and it’s not our job to try.
These beliefs and values about grief are what influenced my very straightforward answer to my daughter’s question. She asked why her sister couldn’t come to play and I knew why. I wasn’t going to be vague and I wasn’t going to pretend that her sister might come back. I believe that adults owe children honest answers because it is up to us to model the way to talk about grief.
“Well kiddo, Dorothy can’t come over because she’s dead. She can’t live here with us, but she can still be our family. We can still love her.”
“Yeah, I love my sister, Dorothy.”
“I love her too bubs,” I said, glancing at her in the rearview mirror.
“Yeah, Mama. You do love Dorothy,” she said as she met my gaze with a smile.
And just like that, any lingering doubts about oversharing were silenced. Because when you’re sharing that kind of love, you are never sharing too much.