Learning Through Loss: Grieving with your Toddler after the Loss of a Loved One

In early 2021, we unexpectedly lost my beloved father-in-law after a brief illness. It was a shock to our family. We were faced with this new reality we didn’t see coming, and had to quickly develop a plan of how we would navigate this journey with our then 3 and a half year old and 18 month old.

While our 18 month old couldn’t comprehend the news, our 3 year old could.

Through our grief, my husband and I discussed how we felt it would be best to talk to our kids about the loss our family had suffered. We felt it was best to be completely honest about what had happened to their beloved grandfather and try to make our explanation as simple and easy to understand as possible. I understand that this process looks different for each family, but during this difficult time for our family, we felt it was best to be open about the events that unfolded. While we wanted our children to be aware of what happened, we didn’t want to overload them with too much information. This led to having to answer a lot of really hard questions from our daughter, but we did so as simply as we could.  We tried to keep our explanations short, direct, and simple. Our 3 year old seemed very receptive to our explanation. While she was saddened by the reality, we felt as her parents, a peace knowing she was aware of what change we were walking through. And although it broke our heart to see her grieve, her questions led to some important conversations for us as a family, ones that I didn’t expect to have this early in their childhood.

Besides keeping the door open for questions and conversation, we also tried to keep my father-in-law’s memory alive by talking about memories we have with him and our kids. We look at pictures of him often. We keep him in our conversation, not only for our hearts’ sake, but so that our children can know more about him as they get older. One thing that has been particularly helpful for my daughter is keeping a picture of my father-in-law in her room. She initiated this idea, and I am so thankful she did. After his passing, we framed some pictures of him. One day, we were all particularly struggling with grief, and she asked to look at a picture of him. I offered her to have one of the pictures I framed of him, and it hasn’t left her room since. It was such a simple gesture but has provided so much comfort to all of us. Having his picture in her room seems to help initiate more conversations about him, which in turn teaches my younger child more about him as well.

Now here we are, almost 18 months later. My daughter is almost 5 and my son almost 3. My father in law’s picture remains in my daughter’s room. Both of my kids ask questions often that usually lead to in depth conversations about our faith, life, love and even death. Though I didn’t anticipate helping my kids navigate such a hard lesson at such an early age, I know my father-in-law would be proud to know that through his passing, my husband and I are able to teach our children more about our faith.

Grief is a tough road, and sometimes even more difficult when you have sweet little ones looking to you for answers. The truth about grief is there is no right or wrong way to walk through it.