How Do You Tell A Toddler Her Father Died?

IMG_9176Life is currently a weird balance of sadness, grieving and playing My Little Ponies. From the moment I rushed to the ER, I had to balance everything that happened with parenting. As they were getting ready to roll Mr Loco to organ donation surgery and we were spending our last minutes together, I had to juggle a baby that wanted to nurse. My emotions were all over the place because I lost my husband but had to be pulled together for Baby Loco. Baby Loco still needs her diaper changed. She still needs to be nursed. She still needs a bath and to be snuggled to sleep. She has needed lots of extra support as she works through what happened in her own way.

Baby Loco was 16 months old when her dad died. She loved her daddy. When she heard the laundry room door open from the garage and her daddy walk down the hall, she got giddy. She would giggle and squeeze her fists in anticipation. When Mr Loco would walk into sight, she would squeal with delight.


We were a bed sharing family. That meant that Mr Loco and Baby Loco snuggled in bed every morning.
We chatted in bed as a family, touched our phones and spent a little time playing before getting up for the day. There was no doubt that Mr Loco and Baby Loco were besties.

She spent a lot of time with daddy during those 16 months. When Mr Loco was not at work, we were

IMG_0238spending time together as a family. When Mr Loco was hospitalized, Baby Loco and I were with him every single day, generally for a 10-12 hour stretch. There were countless hours spent snuggling each other in bed, playing pat-a-cake, listening to music, reading books and playing peek-a-boo. After all of that, who wouldn’t have a strong bond?

When Mr Loco died, I had to figure out how to explain this to a baby. Saying things like “Daddy went bye-bye.” or spinning some magical tale could be scary to a toddler.  I knew that I needed to be factual and talk to Baby Loco about death…as much as I understand it. There are no comforting answers, no stories or euphemisms when it comes to explaining this. I quickly referenced two parenting books I had read earlier to make sure I was on the right track with how to handle this conversation. I had to tell the truth, be there for Baby Loco emotionally and validate her feelings. I also didn’t want to hide my grief from Baby Loco but I didn’t want to scare her either. I wanted her to see that adults grieve and that it is hard work and takes time. I am sure there are things that will always make me sad. There are things that will make her sad. That is a healthy part of the process. The realization that we have such a brief time in this world can be jarring. This world existed before us and will continue to exist after us. What big lessons for such a tiny tot. Baby Loco will be learning and living these lessons in the coming years.

How did I choose to explain death to a toddler?
Baby Loco woke up and would look around the bedroom and sign for daddy. She walked around the house yelling for him. I had the hardest conversation I have ever had with her and I have had this conversation numerous times since. Of course I don’t know how much she understands and that is why I will continue having this conversation as much as is needed. I try to state in terms that are as simple as possible that:

  • Daddy died. His brain stopped working.
  • I miss him very much.
  • Even though we won’t ever see him again, we can always talk about him. There are always great daddy stories.
  • Daddy loved us so very much. That is something we will always carry with us even if daddy isn’t here.
  • It is scary sometimes to think about living in a world without daddy.
  • We have lots of people that care about us.
  • Mommy is really sad but knows that we will be okay.
  • We will think of lots of ways to celebrate and remember daddy. He is still an important part of our family even if he isn’t here.

IMG_3425Sometimes I make it through all of these points sometimes only one or two. Sometimes I tell stories about Mr Loco. It all depends on what we are each feeling up to.

Baby Loco also had some pretty epic meltdowns. I am sure this was the result of several very late nights in the hospital, an interruption to our routine, a mommy that was stressed and emotional and spending time with her daddy who was not responsive. (The sweet girl tried to share her cheerios with him and do this little piggy with his toes. Sweet girl.) Our parenting style has always been pretty laid back. We always took Ruby’s lead and rolled with the punches. This instance was no different. I tried to hug her tight, distract her, offer her milk…nothing was comforting to her in meltdown mode. She had hit the wall and needed to cry for a while before she was ready to be comforted. She slept on top of me for a few nights. She was my little spider monkey.  After a few days, those meltdowns stopped and lots of hugs followed. I was quickly reminded of something Mr Loco always said about her walking up to him and giving a big hug. He said he was never going to be the first to let the hug go. That was up to Baby Loco. He was going to hug her and enjoy every ounce of that hug until she was done. He was going to give her all the hugs she needed. Who on earth would want to cut that short and push that goodness away? That is what I think of every time that little girl hugs me. I accept that hug with open arms and enjoy every second. I wait for Baby Loco to release and I thank her for a great hug. She gives lots more hugs now. If she sees me crying she instantly gives me a giant hug. She will eventually pull back and look at my face to see if I am still crying. Her nap routine was all over the board for several weeks. We finally fell back into a more normal pattern. Again, I didn’t force anything. I tried to encourage naps at regular times by nursing her or going for a walk in the stroller but if those activities did not induce a nap, I just rolled with it until she was ready. Some days that meant a nap at 4:00 pm but it all worked itself out. We just added in a dose of patience, lots of hugs, lots of nursing and lots of walks in the stroller and in the wagon. Baby Loco needed lots of reassurance and comfort. I am always here and ready to provide a big dose of love.


I want Baby Loco to always know and to always feel comfortable talking about Mr Loco. Our house is full of pictures of Mr Loco. When I notice Baby Loco looking at them, I take the time to name everyone in the photo or tell a story about the photo. I may say “I see Daddy and Mommy and Ruby. Who do you see?” She likes to point and say “Mama” and “Dada” or sign daddy. Someone gave us a family picture decoupaged on a canvas. Baby Loco claimed that as her own pretty early. She would look at it as we lounged in bed each morning and kiss daddy. This is again where I would talk about daddy and what happened. It is a heartbreaking thing to watch but then again, I am heartbroken myself.

I talk about Mr Loco as we do things as well. One example is that Mr Loco always put his shoes on left and then right. Why? Because that is how shoes are put on….or so he told me. When he would put Baby Loco’s shoes on her he would always say “We always put our left shoe on first.” I have started doing the same thing with Baby Loco. I say “Daddy always said that you start with your left foot. Where is your left foot? Let’s put your shoe on your left foot and then your right foot.” There are a few other things that Mr Loco said with frequency that I like to credit to him. Talking about her daddy will help Baby Loco and me.

I have a few ideas of ways to remember and talk about Mr Loco as a family and I am sure we will add things over the years.

  • Each Thanksgiving we can give a toast to Mr Loco and talk about the deep-fried turkeys he made and how delicious they were.
  • Each Christmas Eve morning we can continue his tradition of making breakfast for the neighborhood.
  • Celebrate the Day of the Dead by setting up pictures, making some of Mr Loco’s favorite foods and sharing stories and talking about him and about what he brings to our life.
  • Light a memory candle (Yahrzite Candle) on Mr Loco’s birthday or the anniversary of his death and let it burn for 24 hours as we share stories about Mr Loco and care for the flame.

I have a few books that Baby Loco may enjoy when she can better understand. One is titled Tear Soup and was sent by a friend. It is hard to imagine a better book. THANK YOU! I also have I Wonder which was on Mr Loco’s wish list which is more science but makes you think  and a third book given to me by the organ donation team. For myself, I read the sections on death in Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers to help me start the conversation with Baby Loco. These books have been very helpful.It also gives me ideas for how things could change in the future and conversations I will have to have at various points as Baby Loco grows and matures.

This conversation was the hardest one I have had to start. It is also one that I will need to revisit with Baby Loco as she grows and understand more. I hope my words are helpful to Baby Loco and that we can remember all of the amazing kindness that was Mr Loco.

One thought on “How Do You Tell A Toddler Her Father Died?

  1. You are an amazing woman and an amazing writer. You should write a book some day. I think it will help a lot of people in your situation.

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