A story of grief by a man and a boy

grieving toddlers

Go and try to find some information on toddler grief that will make you feel better about the death of your infant child’s mummy. And let me know when you do.

When a toddler’s mother dies suddenly and you become their only living parent, you start to believe that everything that upsets them or makes them cross is because of their loss. People will tell you they are just being toddlers, “they all behave like that”, but it simply isn’t true.

I know my son. I know what’s a tantrum and what isn’t. No-one knows that better than me anymore. He can’t articulate how he feels yet. In fact he’ll never be able to tell me how he felt at the time of her death because he won’t remember. This means the professionals can’t help much. They just tell me he’ll be okay because he won’t recall his loss.

Try really hard to imagine how this feels. Better still, if you’re reading this and going through the same thing then let me know.

To me it feels like Desreen has been robbed. To me it feels like my son is (and always will have been) too young to appreciate that he had the most loving, caring and adoring mother on Earth.

Charities like Winston’s Wish have helped. They’ve suggested ways to keep Desreen’s memory alive for my son. But all of that’s for the future. For now I have to make myself feel like I’m doing my wife justice by using my parental intuition to ‘do the right thing’.

Again, this is just my experience, but it’s now two months since my wife died and I have a child who loves me and is showing signs of happiness and laughter every day. So I have to believe I’m doing something right.

This post is for any poor bugger like me who wakes in the middle of the night and frantically scours the internet for advice on how to care for a bereaved toddler.

Tantrums or anger possibly caused by being two; possibly caused by the fact his mummy doesn’t come home anymore:
I take him out of the situation or room and hold him close. I ask him what’s wrong. We look out the window, we both try to calm down and I wipe his tears away. I don’t tell him off because I think about how I’d feel if someone tried to tell me I wasn’t allowed to express my grief right now. Sometimes he’s upset because he wants one of my friends to go home; sometimes because he wants one to come over. Whatever the cause I give him a cuddle rather than a telling-off.

I’ve left every single photo of Desreen up on the wall. I invite him to kiss her picture on my phone before we go to bed. I’ve no interest in him not mentioning her name or asking where she’s gone to to spare my feelings. I couldn’t feel any worse anyway.

The truth:
I tell him where she’s gone. I tell him the truth. I say she’s gone away and can’t ever come back (because he doesn’t know what ‘death’ or ‘killed’ are yet). In fact he doesn’t know what ‘ever’ or ‘never’ are yet either but I feel a consistent narrative will be important to maintain over the years. I tell him that she didn’t want to go. I tell him that she would never have left him out of choice because she loved him more than anyone or anything in the world. I tell him that I’m going to look after him now and that I know how because Mummy taught me. I tell everyone who cares for him to use the same words as me so he doesn’t get confused. I ban the words ‘gone to a better place’ because he might want to go there or, perhaps worse, think she chose that mysterious place over him.

And for now we pray, but we don’t talk about mummy being in heaven, because he doesn’t know the geographical difference between paradise and the park.

Let’s hope intuition serves me well.

27 comments on “grieving toddlers

  1. Sara
    January 8, 2013

    I had a 7 yr old, 5 yr old, and a 7 month old when Randy died. Your intuition will serve you well and if you feel like you need help, seek it. My kids went with me to counseling, when they needed to. The baby is now almost 12 and she went through her own grieving period as a school age child, she was about 8. Kids are amazing, and you will be amazed to watch your child go through this. Strong, adaptable creatures!

  2. Sara
    January 9, 2013

    Be fluid in your approach. If something doesn’t work, adjust it.

    Be honest, but on his level. Limit details, but be honest. It is so hard to look at that little face and break his heart everytime he asks something, but it would be harder on him to lie and then find out the truth later. When that happens, you sort of have to go through the grief process again to work through it.

    Let him guide you and your responses. I let my kids see counseling as they needed to. Most of it was play therapy. Kids, especially boys, talk better if you both are occupied doing something (playing, cooking, etc). For me, it was a fine line to walk. I wanted to be honest and loving and show it’s okay to be sad without making the kids feel like I wasn’t okay or that they needed to take care of me.

    Be ready for frank comments, kids are not great at monitoring their comments before they come out and they make no apologies. One day my son looked at me and said ‘I wish you were dead instead of my best buddy’. What he meant was he missed his daddy, but ouch…that hurt. I just said, ‘I know you miss your daddy, buddy.’

    Losing Desreen is going to change you–as a person, as a father, as a friend. How it changes you is up to you. Completely.

    Ask me anything and I’ll anwer the best I know. Hold on, it sounds like you are doing good, all considering.

    Talk to you soon

  3. Roy Summers
    January 9, 2013

    Ben, I am a friend of Hannah Norris and she has told me, briefly, of your story and I found your blog here via Hannah’s facebook page. I am married with a 2 and half year old daughter. I cannot possibly imagine what you are going through and I cant offer you any advice, I wouldn’t know where to start, but I just wanted to say how truly shocked I was at hearing your story from Hannah and how much I admire what you are doing as I read your Blogs. I have just read the blog about your little boy; I think the way you are handling the situation with him is brilliant, you are doing an amazing job.


    • lifeasawidower
      January 10, 2013

      Thanks Roy. It’s very difficult but you’ll know that you would do anything to make a happier future for your daughter. Nothing else in the world matters as much as that right now.

  4. Pingback: poor daddy « life as a widower

  5. Sarah
    January 11, 2013

    Today my youngest son asked me if we could buy a new Daddy. He was just 8 months old when his father died, so doesn remember him. My other son had just turned 2, so the same age as Jackson. They are now 6 and 5. They are generally dispassionate because on a daily basis their needs are being met and they are not short of love, they are only just starting to realise that a large part of their life is just not there. I feel that I have been grieving on their behalf as well as my own these past 4 years because they do not appreciate what they are missing.
    As time goes on they are able to tell me more about how they feel about losing Daddy and I feel that I will have more to deal with in the future as they come to terms with it through increasing awareness.
    This is a roller coaster of a journey we are on. Follow your instincts but children are amazingly resilient and adaptable, it’s us who need the support and to indulge our grief right now… I think it will hit much later for them and hopefully you and I will be in a much better place to deal with it by then.
    My very best wishes to you and Jackson for the difficult road ahead … I’m only slightly further along it than you … Strength and fortitude will get you through, but there’s nothing wrong with giving in to it when you need to. xx

  6. Sarah
    January 11, 2013

    The thing about heaven … For a long time my eldest thought heaven was where Philip worked as his earliest memories were of being taken there and understood this was where Daddy spent a lot of time! I only realised this when we drove past and he turned to his brother and said “that’s where Daddy is – that is heaven”. It was actually a David Lloyd tennis club! Rather than contradict him I let it go because he was too young to understand otherwise. As he’s got older I’ve been able to modify his beliefs … I can’t really explain too much about heaven … But at least he now understands that DLs is where Daddy worked and he really won’t be coming home … It’s a gradual process for them to understand what death really means. It helped when our cat died recently because the boys could see that it was still Tots but that he had essentially ‘gone’ … We had the body in the kitchen and they looked and touched and talked about him and what had happened when he died … I thought it would help them to understand about Daddy … Later I took the cat out to the garage while they were watching Tv. When the boys went back into the kitchen they just said ‘ oh Tots has gone to heaven now’ so they still believe that a dead person/pet physically goes somewhere else … But that is fine … They understand at their own level and it’s very difficult to explain further .. It will come in time. They ask me tricky questions and I try not to confuse or scare them but try to be honest. Sometimes the answer is ‘ nobody really knows’. We talk about Daddy a lot and I always try to include him by saying things like ‘daddy would have liked that’ or ‘ daddy would be so proud of you’. It’s right that the absentee remains a part of your family. Sorry to ramble on … I’m just passing on a few of my experiences .. Actually it’s been quite therapeutic to write these things and to realise that I AM dealing with things and I AM coping with my children’s increasing awareness of their particular situation. And you will too. Xxx

    • lifeasawidower
      January 13, 2013

      Thanks very much for being so open. Much appreciated x

    • Sarah davies
      January 16, 2013

      Hi sarah….my husband died two years ago when our little boy was two and my daughter was 14. I’m still struggling with it all. Everything you’ve said I understand so well. I feel so guilty though because sometimes I know I’m such a horrible mother to them both because I can’t stop myself getting overwhelmed by my own grief. I have fantastic friends who have come to our rescue on many occasions but I sometimes can’t understand why my instinct to protect them from it all just doesn’t kick in. It’s getting better i guess….but it’s hard having no one to share it with. I’m so pleased I’ve found this blog as I think it might help.

  7. jane
    January 12, 2013

    I was 4 years old when my Father died. My memories of him are a blur of reality and my mums memories as she speaks about him all the time. He was sick for a few years and I spent lots of time with cousins as to not be in hospitals with my Mum. I missed out on the grieving process a lot. My 5 older brothers and sisters didnt. It had a profound affect of their loves. My oldest brother was 12 at the time and now is very responsible and looks after everyone. My sister suffered from lots of nightmares, mainly of her looking for my Dad. Grief is different in everyone. At times I feel very sad that I didnt get a chance to spend time with this wonderful person. But as I said my Mother spends lots of time filling us in with beautiful memories of their time and our time together. He has always been a part of my life. I am now 31. The most important thing is to keep those memories alive for your son. My Mother survived being widowed at 35 with 6 children. She is a very special and strong person. You can do it too. And your son will know his Mum through you. x

    • lifeasawidower
      January 13, 2013

      Thank you, Jane. I’ve heard a lot from grown up children who lost their parents young and it’s very reassuring. My primary concern is naturally my son x

  8. jane
    January 12, 2013

    lives not loves

  9. Pingback: want mummy « life as a widower

  10. stef
    January 14, 2013

    hi. i am really really sorry for your loss. when my mum died, i told my daughters that she had gone to the moon to be with the angels because they were too young to understand heaven as well. my youngest was 2 like your little boy. that was 3 years ago. to this day, whenever they see the moon they say that’s where their grandma is, they wave and talk to her. i’m hoping it’s something that will stay with them for a long time – it helps to keep her memory alive for them and it makes me feel better that they remember her and think of her so often.

  11. alysonandrew
    January 16, 2013

    Im training to be a play therapist and already work with children in school dealing with many different issues, I would hugely encourage you to simply play, get out the playdoh, get out the cars and the lego and paints, crayons and just let him play – its how children process things – through play – they cant articulate and so play is their medium to process. I wouldnt try and talk about it as you play just let Jackson lead you in his play – anywhere – let him express in anyway – spend a solid hour just in play, as often as you can. There is no requirement for him to use words or even focus on his loss, helping him to play will enable him to express himself and not keep inside his confusion xxx

  12. Karen
    January 16, 2013

    My Husband died 24th August 2012, sudden death, Steve was 38 and simply dropped dead in the Garden, found by our 4 year old daughter, who rushed in to tell me “daddy was asleep in the garden and wouldn’t wake up”.

    Be honest with your son, buy the book “is Daddy coming home in a minute” which is written by a mum and her son on the death of his father when he was three, it is like a kids story and brilliant, so far we have read it every night for a week, which is my daughters choice….

    Never use vague terms talking about death, you will confuse your son more, children can tell when adults are not being honest with them.

    Maybe think about joining WAY so your son can meet other children who have lost a mummy or daddy – it helped my daughter as we talked about it on the drive home, who’s mummy/daddy had died why etc…

    Love your Son, but keep the rules/displine still in place.

    Trust your instincts

    Karen xx

      January 17, 2013

      Thanks Karen I shall order it today. I’ve signed up to WAY too. Thank you for sharing your story and advice x

  13. Nancy
    January 17, 2013

    A wonderful blog that touches on the complexity of grief in such an articulate way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with the world. I have found myself nodding, smiling and crying at various points in recognition of similar feelings and experiences in my own grief journey after my husband died.
    Karen beat me to it recommending ‘Is daddy coming back in a minute?’. The book was published as a result of crowd funding – further proof of what can be achieved by people galvanised by the death of a partner.
    I hope the writing is helping both you and your son along these very early and I’m sure often dark days.

  14. Tallie
    January 19, 2013

    Hi there, I wanted to reply to you because I lost a parent when I was four, and perhaps it will help to say what I think. I was four, and the parent, my father, so it isn’t quite the same, but still, here goes. 1. Keep everything you can that has her in it (i mean journals, letters etc), but do pack them away in time so that life can keep moving on naturally. He’ll want to revisit her writing etc over the course of his life, and it will mean different things at different times. 2. Don’t be afraid to move on one day, the truth is no couple can give a child all he needs alone, we all need all the help we can get. New people, as long as they love him, will only ever add to the richness of his life. There is room for two dads in my heart, and on some deep level I know that my dad loves the man that brought me up for doing it (even though he’s not with my mum anymore either). 3. A dead parent can be an immensely powerful positive presence in one’s life. I can’t explain why, but I know that my connection with a loving father that died has guided me through life, and to being a better person. It’s a pure kind of love when someone is dead, and it is in your heart all the time (especially when the surviving parent remembers them with adoration). 4. Don’t let your love calcify. Love is a living thing and it lives in you. The ability to love and adore needs to live on in you, and that is real abundance. Perhaps you can’t feel that now because you are honouring your profound loss, her profound value, but keep it in your heart. 5. You child will understand what you are going through, better than anyone, and he will cope with the pain, because it’s a part of living. It may make him more empathetic to others. Who knows what gifts? But do try to keep following your joy, and don’t be guilty for that. He thrives when you thrive, so do whatever it takes. 6. When you lose a parent the worst tragedy is if you lose two. Every time you show up for Jackson happy, or even sad, if it’s connected with love and presence, you give him the gift of the person he can still rely on. 7. He may forget everything about her, but he’ll never forget the feeling of her. It can’t be forgotten. He’ll feel it even when he dies himself, it’s the most real thing there is. Thank you for inspiring me, Jackson is truly a lucky kid to have even one parent so fully devoted to him. I wish you courage in this dark night. Tallie x

    • Jessica
      January 20, 2013

      Hi Tallie, thank your for writing these powerful thoughts about the loss of your Dad. I lost mine at 15 but you are right, his presence is a very positive, loving one in my life, even though being without him hurts like hell sometimes. As I was older I remember more but I hadn’t yet ‘met’ him as a person, but as the loving father he was.

      I’m 42 now, and two years ago I passed the age he reached and that was a sad moment ( I felt so young still and I would wake up the next day, there was some guilt and relief in that) but also a liberation, a feeling that from this day on my life was more mine than before…. and I still enjoy it as the gift it is.

  15. Lunar Hine
    January 22, 2013

    Your intuition sounds strong; trust it above all else.
    One thing which helped me is believing that, even though my daughter may not have real memories of her Dada, she has been gifted his unlimited love for nearly two years when she was forming much of the neural network which will stick for the rest of her life. That’s one level on which she can never forget him: she will always be the person she is partly because she knew him when she was tiny. ‘Why Love Matters’ is the book to explain what I’m on about.
    And I console myself with the thought that it is a HUGE thing to know that you had two parents who adored you, even if you can’t remember details of one of them.
    Lastly, I believe love trumps time. It is eternal. So our children can call on that love at any time in their lives. And so can we.

  16. Anne
    January 25, 2013

    Thank you for your immense emotional bravery in sharing your story. I think it is also so valuable that your blog and article hopefully cause people to stop and think about grief and loss from a young child’s perspective. As a mother I am so touched and saddened to think of your son’s suffering and cried many tears reading what you have written.

    I work in child mental health and although I realise that no “expert” opinion can take away any of you or your son’s suffering, I wanted to share one thing from my understanding of the impact of early relationships and loss. You mentioned somewhere that you (quite rightly) feel that your son has been robbed of a most loving mother and it is true that he may not be able to access conscious memories of her in the future. This does not mean that he will not hold within every part of him the massive influence of the relationship he had with his mother during the time he had with her. The quality of the relationships we have particularly in the first 18 months of life affect us most deeply and your son will have internalised all the love, kindness and care shown to him by his mother. This will always influence the person he is, for the rest of his life. There is no doubt that it is a massive challenge to go through the loss of a parent as a toddler, but your son will always benefit from the mother he had. It is a very different situation to say, a child who did not have a loving or consistent parent in their first two years or a child who has never felt his mother’s unconditional love. I don’t know if that provides you with any solace at all, but I felt it was worth saying. Sending you both love and best wishes.

  17. Jane
    January 28, 2013

    Not sure if this of any help but the Centre is well known for support and they have a dedicated Child Support page –

  18. Jeannie
    April 27, 2013

    If there is one thing I could add to what people have said, it would be to look into Emotional Freedom Techniques. I am certified in this and use it often.

    You can find it online and at for more info.

    It is tapping on acupuncture points to help clear and reverse the negative feelings and trauma and be more at ease with what a person, even a small child is dealing with.

  19. Pingback: 15 Tips for talking to children about deathDomestic Goddesque

  20. Tara
    January 28, 2015

    I just found this blog and it moved me to tears. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, even still. My sister lost her father at about 3, so I was around you 2. We were both present when it happened and are OK. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but we did not have a strong foundation or support. We were still resilient! Most importantly, my sister has nothing but endless love for her father. I just hope you don’t stay too sad or get bitter. Healing is an important part of the process too! I know I am a complete stranger but I have complete faith that in you. You have a beautiful soul.

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