Care and Feeding

The Hardest Talk

Explaining death to a toddler.

A grandfather talks with his grandson.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@gmail.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a very dear friend, now close to death, who I am helping out almost daily. Eighteen months ago my daughter blessed us all with a beautiful baby boy, and I have been able to watch him for a day or three every week since he was a month old. This has involved my friend and my grandson getting to know each other, and they have grown quite attached. (She says he is the best pain relief ever.)

Now her time is running out, and the hospice social worker wants us to have a coherent plan on how we deal with the fact of her death with my grandson. We have been advised not to call it travel, sleep, or other euphemistic terms.

I know in the long term he will not really have any memory of her, but in the short term he will be demanding that I bring him to see his “Ti Ti” for our usual visits. I am prepared to bring him to her empty bedroom and our usual haunts, but I am at a loss as to how to account for her absence. He is being raised with religion, so maybe “gone to heaven” is enough for now?

—Pa Pa Is Crying Again

Dear Pa Pa,

It is so wonderful that you get to spend so much time with your grandson. And it’s so wonderful that your dear friend has someone like you to be so present in her end-of-life care, and that she and your grandson have forged this meaningful relationship. And it is also so difficult that you must deal with these intersecting layers of pain and grief. My own daughter was about this age when my mother went into home hospice care and died in our home. A decade later, I am still awed by the incredible depth and complexity of feeling our little family navigated during that time.

The good news is that there really are some things you can do to help your grandson deal with what is coming. First of all, I agree with your hospice worker that there is no need for euphemisms. It’s so hard for us to say “died,” but that’s what it is. People die. It is the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns and all that. It’s terrifying! I find myself even reluctant to type it here, if I’m being completely honest. But, if you haven’t done so already, you must overcome this squeamishness. You can even practice saying the word to yourself if need be. This will help you do what you need to do with your grandson, which is to use plain and simple language to describe what is happening and what will happen. Should he have questions about what death is, and what happens after, you can tell him exactly what you believe. No need to make up stories there, either. Keep the words simple, keep your sentences short, and wait for questions.

Secondly, you may want to prepare him for what will be coming in the days and weeks after. You can let him know that there will be a service and a funeral. You can explain that many people will come to say goodbye and that they will be sad, and also that after, people may eat and even laugh. You can help him navigate all of this by giving him something to do there. Maybe he helps arrange flowers or hand out programs. Nothing makes order out of chaos like action.

Another thing I found surprisingly helpful with my kids was to talk about my mother with them after she was gone. Letting them share their memories of her seemed to help them grasp her loss in ways that I could not have created of my own design. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably do more of this. I’d let them make cards and write letters to her. I think at the time I was too busy processing my own grief and so I disappeared a little. Which, OK, that’s understandable. But the thing about children—and I have a feeling you know this already—is that you cannot process your feelings on a kid’s time. You must do that separately so that you can be fully present for them as they need you to be. To that end, I would check with your hospice provider about whether they offer grief counseling services. Even if its short term, you may find talking all this out with someone who deals with it regularly to be very helpful.

One final thing I would add: Often we’re so busy preparing for a catastrophic reaction from our kids that we forget that there may be no reaction at all. Your grandson may very well respond to the news with a moment of silence and a follow-up about graham crackers. Or he may weep uncontrollably. There really is no telling— and also there is no wrong response. Try not to anticipate a specific reaction but rather be open to, and accepting of, whatever he brings.

You are doing a tremendous job, and my heart is with you.

More Care and Feeding:

Grandma and Grandpa Secretly Baptized My Child

My Daughter Isn’t Out to Everyone. Do I Have to Lie for Her?

What Will Everyone Think of Me if I Stop Nursing My Baby?

Dear Care and Feeding,

My in-laws are lovely people, but in the past few years they have become obsessed with weight, weight loss, and fad diets to stave off diabetes. This has led to them commenting on the bodies of everyone they encounter, and fat-shaming. I am really uncomfortable with this because it can be hurtful to me, and especially because I don’t want my kids (girls, 10 and 3) to absorb these ideals about bodies. I want to talk to my in-laws about this, but I’m stuck on what to say and how to say it. They love to say they are just worried about our health. How can I shut down endless body shaming, without seeming oversensitive or rude?

—In-Laws Are Weighing In

Dear ILAWI,

If you are overly sensitive or rude, that’s your problem. If you seem overly sensitive or rude to your in-laws, well, then that’s their problem and you certainly shouldn’t alter your behavior as a result. Like most “How do I tell these adults this thing” questions, the answer is: You tell them. So, if you are concerned that such talk in the presence of your growing girls can be damaging, then you can say, “This talk in front of our growing girls can be damaging. So please stop.” And you’d be on good footing because the American Academy of Pediatrics is in full agreement. If indeed what they’re worried about is your health, then you can tell them that while you appreciate their concern, that’s what you have a physician for and the two of you are doing your best to make sure your health is up to code.

The concern about diabetes is, of course, a real one, but as a general rule, nagging people about their eating and health only succeeds in making them feel shitty. It is much better to focus on a healthy lifestyle rather than sitting around calling people fat, so let your in-laws take your kids to the park, on a long walk, or for a foot race outside. If they’re not actually physically putting their bodies where their judgments are, then all they’re really doing is bringing negativity, and who needs more of that?

If you haven’t already, it’s probably time to start talking with your 10-year-old about gender and body stereotypes in the media. While your in-laws probably aren’t helping, they are far from ground zero for this problem. I believe that you can be honest (though not obsessive) with kids about this issue. Watching media with them and occasionally pointing out how there are physical expectations enforced and how those are out of line with reality can do a lot to plant the necessary critical thinking they will need to draw upon later in life. No need to bash everything they watch—that only makes them resent you and think the thing you hate must be cool somehow—but you can gently, consistently point things out.

This always comes up with in-law questions, but one more thing I’d ask you to consider: Shouldn’t your partner be speaking to their folks about this? If there is some reason why not, then fine. But in most normal cases a difficult-to-hear message comes much easier from a blood relative than from the spouse of one. That may not be fair, but it’s true. If possible, let your partner deal with their people, and you can focus on dealing with your girls.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-year-old freshman texted me from school this morning that he did not have his baseball hat. It turns out he left it in his father’s car last night. The car is now at my husband’s office, about 20 minutes away from our house and 30 minutes from the school. My son has practice today but not a game. I told my son that I could bring a hat to him from home for practice but that I was not going to go get the team hat from my husband. I have time to do it, but I think he needs to accept the consequences of his actions. My son is angry at me and says he will get in trouble with his coach.

As background, my son often waits for the last minute to get out of bed and take a shower, and then is rushing to leave the house in time to make the bus. Recently he left his hat at home on a day that he had a game, and I spent about 30 minutes looking for it before I found it.

Just looking for moral support that the right thing to do is not bring him the hat.

—Finishing the Hat

Dear Hat,

Literally one of my favorite parts of parenting a teenager is letting them screw things up entirely of their own accord and face the consequences of said screw-ups. It sounds cruel, but I’m super into it; after more than a decade of feeling solely responsible for this kid’s life, it’s a great relief to let the world intervene with some much-needed parenting assists. Look at it this way. You know not to forget important things. I know not to forget important things, so at some point we learned not to forget important things, and this is exactly how we did it. We forgot important things and experienced pain and discomfort as a result. I think you know that you are precisely right not to bring him the hat. Let your kid experience pain and discomfort. Accept it. Hell, even revel in it. People are much better at doing things because they need to than they are at doing them because someone else is making them. This is how you let your kid find the place where he needs to.

But I want to take a moment here to acknowledge how hard this is. It’s very easy for those of us standing on the sidelines to yell, “Let him learn the hard way!!” but this little person you have loved and cared for his entire life is now a big, smelly, clumsy dude clomping around and getting yelled at by coaches. And every fiber of your being, every cell, screams out that we must prevent him from harm of any type. So even if this hat thing is easy enough, there will undoubtedly be even more difficult decisions in the future. Perhaps the biggest parenting difference between elementary-age kids and teens is that when they are young, you can, with action, fix things for them. Even if it’s not always ideal or convenient, it’s at least possible. But with teenagers, even though the work is just as strenuous, there is simply less in their lives you can directly control with your own two hands. And that is very hard and frustrating and sometimes grief-inducing.

But it helps to remember that adolescence is a nearly decadelong handoff between you and them. You’re handing off their lives from your hands to theirs. Soon you’ll reach a point where all you can do is tell them you love them. You only have those words in which to put all the energy you once used managing the entire world for them. Jesus, now I’m getting weepy. The point is: Telling your son that you unconditionally love and support him is right. Telling him that you won’t bail him out on things he can and should do for himself is also right. Good luck.

—Carvell