Through a child’s eyes

This morning my son’s preschool teacher shared something with me that he told her in the classroom.

He said, “You know something that’s so sad? My mom had a sister who died. She was riding her bike and she looked both ways, but there was a truck and a bad guy who had a mask and he just ran into her and she died, and now she’s an angel and she’s looking over all of us. She’s looking out for me.”

I am grateful that this woman took the time to capture his words and send me a message about the conversation. It both surprised and touched me that he is processing a difficult subject in a gentle and fairly accurate manner (minus the guy with the mask, this is basically what happened to my sister in June 2005).

From the time when he could ask “why”, Miles has been on a lifelong fact-finding mission.

Not only do I have to negotiate screen time, procure, promote and prepare an array of healthy food choices, support gross motor development through spontaneous soccer matches in the living room, and help my preschooler learn to read and write through home-made dot-to-dot and tracing games, now I have to help him figure out why on earth someone like his mama’s younger sister could possibly be dead.

And so I take a deep breath.

I talk openly and often to our boys about my youngest sister and her family who live across the country, but I infrequently talk about my middle sister. This could be because since she isn’t here to hold and play and be with them, and they’re too young to understand the complexity of an unexpected and senseless death. However, there is a framed photograph of my sister displayed prominently in the living room, and both boys are occasionally taken with it. They admire its sparkly frame and the pretty young woman in the colorful summer dress.

I remember the day the photo was snapped – it was during my bridal shower in my parents’ home. My sister was not yet married a year and eager for me to join her in married life.

Recently, Miles wanted more specific information about his aunt. Our conversation went something like this:

Mama, this is Aunt Liz” (pointing to the photograph).

Yes, she’s your Aunt Liz.”

Not Aunt B. Aunt B’s not dead” (Miles used to get the two of them mixed up).

Right. Aunt B is cousin Lexi’s mama and lives in Virginia.”

Ok. Why did Aunt Liz die?”

It was an accident.”

What happened?”

I pause. I really didn’t want to go there, and I’m not sure what’s age-appropriate at this point and the last thing I want to do is traumatize my child.

I respond, “It was very sad”.

Persistent, he demands to know: “But what happened?”

Finally, I say:

She was riding her bike. She got in an accident.”

You mean she didn’t look both ways?” he looked horrified.

No, honey, I’m sure she looked both ways. It. Wasn’t. Her. Fault.”

He looked relieved to know that she had looked both ways before crossing the street.

So what happened?”

Eventually I explained vaguely that there was an accident involving a truck, but quickly wrapped it up by saying that his Aunt Liz is a kind and loving spirit who watches over him, and isn’t that a very wonderful thing to know even though her accident was very sad. He seemed to get it, and was quiet for a few minutes before moving on to the next compelling thing which was to ask me to read him a superhero story or watch him make a map (maps and compasses are his current obsession).

It’s a very strange thing to talk openly about death in what feels like almost a cavalier manner. It’s unfamiliar to simplify and even reduce the impact of what in reality was and is such a life-changing and devastating event in order to preserve the innocence of a child. And yet, it also feels natural to talk about her absence by taking a non-threatening approach with my almost-five-year-old and responding to his questions.

I think the right thing to do is to respond to his curiosity in a tender, honest and loving manner rather than do what feels easiest which is to ignore it and change the subject. I believe that my sister would share this approach since she did not tend to be evasive around challenging topics (and that’s the truth). And by exploring tough subjects, we may discover something about our children that we may not know. If they have fears or worries or misconceptions, I think we should be open to finding those out and helping them navigate through those deep and muddy waters.

Readers, I welcome your thoughts on explaining difficult situations to your young children. Do you alter your language? Do you modify the experience? Or just tell the plain hard truth? Are they satisfied by a few honest words, or do they suspect there is more than what you’re letting on?

Does the story linger in your heart long after your child has left the room?

It does in mine.


42 thoughts on “Through a child’s eyes

  1. Oh, I am so, so sorry for the loss of your sister. That is heart-breaking. We’ve had to discuss mortality with my son because, after twelve heart surgeries, he is aware of his own mortality and has brought it up. . .repeatedly. He’s almost nine, but the first time he brought it up he was about five.

    I think you handled it gracefully. It’s not easy to talk about death with our children, but death is part of life. I think if we don’t allow for gentle honestly about big issues, they won’t come to us later about things that scare them or people who might be harming others or themselves. It’s about building trust, and while we never have all of the answers, we owe our kids what we can offer. He may not remember the details about your sister’s death and he may ask again, but he will remember your approachability and honesty.

    • skpadilla says:

      Thank you very much. I appreciate your kind words, and I admire your strength in the face of a difficult medical situation for your son. Best wishes to all of you.

  2. Anika and I had to have a discussion about what if the baby died because a classmate whose infant sister had died had told Anika that that is what happened to babies. I felt like I couldn’t tell her, “no, that won’t happen to our baby”. Just like when she tells me she doesn’t want me to die I can’t seem to bring myself to just say, “oh honey, I’m not going to die”. So we had a long conversation with lots of tears on how if it does happen then we will be sad and probably cry and miss the baby. I still don’t know if psychologically that was the right thing to do for a pre-schooler but I just couldn’t bring myself to promise and then what damage if the unthinkable does happen and the promise is “broken”? I agree with Amanda, that because of how it was handled he will always come to you for answers and not end up in that childhood limbo where we feel like we have to find our own on our own.

    • skpadilla says:

      I admire your honesty. I also don’t feel right telling even white lies to my children, and I think by focusing on simple and gentle truths, it prepares them for so much more. Besos to you and Anika!

  3. Certainly not an easy thing to do…it sounds like you handled it very well. As a culture, we have a tendency to avoid talking about those things deemed uncomfortable…I’m afraid it does more harm than good to avoid them.

  4. I think you handled this beautifully with your son. But more importantly I think your son handled this beautifully with you. You have written beautifully in the past about grief. One thing about grief is the way it is always kind of there waiting and watching. Your son’s honesty and sweetness keeps grief in check and gives you a chance to talk about your sister without fear of making the conversation awkward or uncomfortable.

    • skpadilla says:

      You’re absolutely right. Thank you for pointing how how beautifully HE handled this situation. Sometimes our children teach us — often more than we teach them.

  5. Beej says:

    Wow. This is so hard, and I think you handled it beautifully.

    A couple of years ago, I was to be remarried. We were expecting, and she lost the baby – which left us explaining to do to my daughter, who was very excited about being a big sister. In some ways, I think this is a similar loss to explain, in that the kids never got to know the person who is no longer there, but they feel some of the loss. As non-religious people, we were fairly direct about the death. When she asked if the baby was “in heaven,” we said that many people believe that when you die, your spirit lives on, and asked her what she thought.

    I’m really sorry for the loss of your sister, but very glad to have found your blog!

    • skpadilla says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss. I like the approach of presenting the question back to the child for his/her thoughts and perspective. They know so much, even at a young age. Best wishes to you.

  6. Oh that was so beautiful. I tell my kid straight-up. His bio left (at my insistence) when he was 5 and about a year later he asked why. I told him I asked him to and he asked why so I told him. Daddy had a girlfriend. He was horrified and mad for a hot second but then just said, “I think that’s bad and I would never do that.” I have never ever said a bad word about his bio but I DO answer truthfully while also telling him how much his bio (who hasn’t seen or spoken to him in over 3 years) really does love him truly but just doesn’t know how to show it well. I always want him to grow up knowing I was honest and fair about the situation and let him come to his own conclusions. He still asks questions while we go through the process of my husband adopting him.

    Fantastic terrific touching post.

  7. kvetchmom says:

    What a beautiful and touching post. I’m so very sorry that you lost your sister. Children process grief head on, I find. My mother’s death has been a profound experience for my daughter. We signed her up for a grief support group for children. I’ve tried to talk to her about death and the grief process as directly as possible. It is hard to revisit the details as frequently as she likes, though. I’m finding that her coping skills are better than my own!

  8. heidi says:

    I’m so sorry that you lost your sister.
    I think you handled this very well with your son. Your approach is my approach with my kids. I’m honest, but gently honest.
    What a touching and incredible post. Thank you for it, for letting us in.

  9. Delilah says:

    I’m so sorry about the loss of your sister. It’s always so difficult to manage how much to tell a child and how much to hold back. Our oldest boys are adopted from foster care and the 11 year old has started questioning the reasons why he was in foster care. I’m walking a seriously fine line of wanting to be honest with him but not wanting to disparage his birth family. I think you did a wonderful job.

    • skpadilla says:

      Thank you for writing. It isn’t easy to figure out how much, exactly to tell children, about the truth, but I think by starting with simple, gently presented truths, we prepare them for when they are older and begin understanding more and more about difficult situations.

  10. Meg O'Keefe says:

    Wow….I feel like you did an AMAZING job answering your sons questions and based on his repetition to the teacher as to what happened I would say you did exactly what he needed to understand something beyond his years. So sorry for your loss, sounds like you have a very sweet little one.

  11. I’m so sorry about your sister. Thank you for sharing your story. I think you handled it well and I think you know your child best and what he can handle as far as the truth is concerned. My mom passed away when my son was 3.5 and my son is a questioner of all as well. Almost 2 years later, I’m still answering questions about what happened to Grandma, her illness and specifics about our bodies after death. I try to give the simplest answer I can to satisfy his curiosity. I ask if I answered his question, does he have more questions (he always says no) and then I remind him that we can talk about and remember Grandma or he can ask me whatever he wants. I tell him sometimes we feel sad and miss her and sometimes we talk about her and it’s happy, but none of the feelings or questions are wrong. I don’t know if it’s the “right” way to handle it, but it works for us so far.

  12. I don’t envy the task of explaining and am dreading the day the Little Dude asks me about my late mother, not that I’m not proud of her, but just because I’ll have to explain her senseless passing at the hand of cancer. Keep them innocent as long as you can, I say.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Stacey says:

    I think you are handling his questions perfectly by answering them in an open and loving way. Children have this need to understand the world around them, and sometimes, granting that gift brings healing to us as well. Great post.

  14. Your questions about how to talk to small children are so valid. How much is too much, what isn’t enough. I am a nurse, I have always worked in ERs and ICUs with trauma being the bulk of everything. I did work a few years as a pediatric ICU nurse. So many things are senseless and unfair, hard for adults to wrap their minds around. I found with my job and now with my kids, laying it out plain and simple is the best. Real words, honest truthful answers. If they ask for more I give it. If what I said was enough, I stop. I believe that children are more intuitive than we give them credit for, and sometimes if we keep things from them to protect them it doesn’t make sense….they already know.
    I can’t imagine losing your sister like that. I think you did a really good job with him.

  15. Lenore Diane says:

    Very well written. My condolences to you and your family for the loss of your sister. I think talking to your kids about matters like this one should be done on a case by case basis. Some kids ‘get it’ better than others. I think being honest and real is the best approach, but again – you know your child best. I don’t think the model is one size fits all.

  16. This is so, so sad. And it is hard to talk to our kids about these things. Both my husband’s parents are dead – one died well before my kids were born and the other died unexpectedly and strangely a couple years ago. It’s important to us to talk about them so that they’re almost a part of our kids’ lives, but sometimes the questions about death pop up. We choose the honest answers option. But sometimes not too much detail, just depending on the situation.

    • skpadilla says:

      Thank you. I’m sorry for the loss of your children’s grandparents. I believe talking about them honors their memory, and places them in a special way for our kids.

  17. It seems that you handled this situation in your son’s best interest. You answered his questions, gave him an honest explanation, and didn’t make the mistake of sugar coating it. No matter how painful or uncomfortable, conversations about loss are a necessity. From what you have disclosed it seems that this conversation was exactly what he had needed to understand.

  18. Wow. First, I’m so glad the teacher took the time to share what your child talked about. How wonderful of her. Second, I’m so sorry for YOUR loss, and that of your family. And lastly, I think you handled it perfectly – making it serious, but not the end all be all of fright for your child.

    A wonderful post. Thank you.

  19. About a year after we lost our dog my oldest, then 4 was terrified of diving into the pool. it took a while to figure out he thought that our dog had “dived’ not died. :-! What a pitiful story he had been replaying in his head only to be confused when we encouraged him to do the same at the pool! Be as honest as you can and as simple. Sounds like you are doing it just right.

    • skpadilla says:

      What a sweetheart – I’m glad you figured out what he was thinking! I always try to ask questions in a way that helps me understand what’s going on with him… not always easy. Thank you for your thoughts.

  20. I think it’s incredibly touching that your son asks these questions, and it shows that he is incredibly aware/intune to things going on. It also displays a beautiful innocence. I think you have handled it really well.

  21. Sandra tyler says:

    How difficult for you. I haven’t had to deal with this yet, but instill get the big questions. Yesterday, from my 8 year old, ” how did God come alive in the first place?” the unanswerable. Sometimes I just admit to that. Visiting from the writers edge hop.

    • skpadilla says:

      Thank you for your thoughts. Kids continue to challenge and surprise us unexpectedly. Though at times we don’t have the answers, I still cherish the questions.

  22. […] was touched by Sara’s post at Sunshine and Salad about her young son trying to process the death of Sara’s younger sist…, the aunt he never got to meet. I just wanna say there were so many good posts this week, I had […]

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