Explaining death to a toddler – Is there a right way to do it?

My cousin Maphanki Dorah Modingwana is named after my grandmother. Before she got married to my grandfather, my grandmother was Maphanki Dorah Modingwana.

When she was in high school, my brother suggested that my parents take her in. We had all left the nest and my parents were alone. This was more 10 years ago. Her room was next to mine at home; she was always cheerful, always offered to clean my car for free and was generally good company to have around. It was the most natural thing to have her home and she became like my younger sister, a member of our family and part of our local community.
When we went to South Africa for the last three Christmases, she was there and bonded with Neo. And this last time, Neo remembered her and would randomly ask about her out of the blue when we got back to London.
She died very un-expectantly last month, and I was beside myself with sadness and grief. I had to start thinking of what Neo must think when he saw me crying all of that Saturday afternoon and evening and how to explain to him that his Phankgana (his nickname for Maphanki) has died. He noticed that I was sad and gave me a great big hug (hugs are always great and big in our house;)).
While I was trying to compose myself and find the right words that a 2.5 year old mind can understand and process, he again very randomly started asking for her saying ‘I want Phankgana!’. I first had to fight the urge to burst our crying because I didn’t want him to think it was wrong what he was asking me or for him to think that he was making me sad. Does he, at 2.5 years even understand where heaven is? And that people that he knows may die? How I begin to tell him that she is not in South Africa anymore? Or is she?
Thankfully I had sort of prepared when I read an article on explaining death to a pre-schooler. But all that swotting completely escaped me at the crucial time when he asked me again.
I was brave when I looked at him and told him that he will never see his Phankgana again; that she is in happy in heaven with God. I am Christian and so it came a little more naturally for me to refer to God. That explanation seemed to do the trick as he continued playing and didn’t ask again.
My colleague had a brilliant suggestion to memorialise her. She suggested I buy a book that I had been meaning to give her for months; put a picture of Maphanki with Neo (below*) and write a little note. When Neo is old enough, I will give it to him for him to get a glimpse of her, our favourite author and see a pictures of her holding him even if he probably won’t remember her. He might even want to read the book too (I really hope he reads the book!).
Since then, I don’t cry that much anymore although this Easter period has been a little difficult; and I tend to remember the funny stories about Maphanki. I hope this puts him at ease and helps him realise that talking about her will not necessarily have me in tears. I hope when he is older he will remember stories of her from me fondly.
Have you ever had to explain death of a loved one, family, friend or pet to a toddler? How did you go about it?
Big Smiles – Maphanki with Neo
Thanks for stopping by. Have a good day!
*Picture taken at Majaneng, South Africa on 01 January 2012 when Neo was six months old

One thought on “Explaining death to a toddler – Is there a right way to do it?

  1. Beautiful tribute. As you say, she is in a better place. I can only imagine how difficult it is to explain death to a toddler. I lost a grandmother when I was four or five. The wwoman who had been a great part of my short life, was suddenly no longer. I don't think anyone ever explained to me what had happened. I would later figure out she was no longer. My mom probably never knew how to tell me then what had happened. Awesome post.

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