Just recently, in the past couple of months, Sidamo has started piecing together family relationships (Aunt Meg is Mommy's sister, Grandma is Daddy's mommy, Pop-pop is Mommy's daddy), and he's figured out that someone's missing: Mommy's mommy. When he finally thought to ask who my mommy is, I was struck silent—much in the same way I was when he asked, "If you don't have a penis, what do you have?" Eek. Not ready for either of those talks. I went with the straightforward approach:
"My mommy's name was Catherine, and she's your grandmother. I know she would have loved to know you, but she died before you were born. She would have loved you so much."
He didn't really react, other than to note how funny it is that my mother and his cousin share the same name.
Since then, though, the subject of my mother's death comes up a lot. I heard him telling his new babysitter, "Mommy's upstairs, and Daddy's at work. Mommy's mommy is dead." All in a very chipper voice, which makes it clear that the meaning of the word hasn't registered, and I'm going with the approach of explaining it more until he asks more questions. Because that will be a true sign that he's ready to understand it, right?
Today he came into the kitchen as I was cooking and asked, "Mommy, did you die?" It was jolting, but I gathered myself and answered, "No, honey, I didn't die. Dying is forever. If someone dies, you don't see them again. That's how you know I didn't die—because you can still see me." Which felt like a totally literal and shallow explanation—and sort of made me wish we weren't atheist. It would have been so much more gentle to say something along the lines of, "Grandma's in heaven, and we'll all see her again someday." But we don't believe that, and he seemed to be satisfied with the answer I gave, at least for now.
It's such big stuff for a 3-year-old to try to grasp, and while it pains me that he needs to learn it all, it is very interesting to be along for the ride as he figures it out.