Death is one of the hardest subjects to broach with a young child, especially if you’re struggling to deal with your own sorrow. However, it’s an inescapable part of life, and your child will want to understand it and find his own way to grieve.
Here are some tips on how you can help your preschooler through this difficult time.
What does my preschooler understand?
Most young children are aware of death from early on. They hear about it in fairy tales, see it on television, and discover dead insects and birds when they’re out and about. Your child may even have already experienced the death of a pet or a family member.
Despite this, there are aspects of death that preschoolers are simply too young to understand. They can’t grasp that death is permanent and that it happens to everyone at some point.
No matter how many times you explain it, young children can’t really get to grips with what causes death. Even when a parent or a sibling has died, your child probably won’t see death as something that can happen to him.
How will my preschooler react?
Children experience grief differently from adults and may react in a variety of ways. Your child’s reactions can range from great distress, to seeming not to be interested at all.
One minute your preschooler may be sobbing, the next minute he may be asking, “What’s for tea?” This doesn’t mean that your child cares any less about what has happened.
Children can also delay grieving until they feel it’s safe to let those feelings out. This is a process that can take months or even years, particularly if your child has lost someone in their immediate family.
If your preschooler’s routine is disrupted by the bereavement, this can have an impact too. He may struggle to understand why the adults around him are so sad. He may become clingy, revert to baby talk, or suddenly resist going to a familiar place, such as playgroup.
In addition, there may be more tantrums. This could be a way for him to express his sadness, or a reaction to feelings of tension and sorrow in your house. Your child may also express anger towards you, other family members, or even the person who has died.
Preschoolers often engage in role play as part of their development. Your preschooler may start pretending that some of his toys have died or even play dead himself. Even if it strikes you as morbid, try not to discourage him, as it’s his way of working through his feelings.
You may find that your child behaves in a manner that seems uncaring or cold compared with the reactions of older people. He might ask some very blunt questions or ask for details about the death. It’s natural for him to want to understand what has happened.
How can I help my preschooler?
Talking to your child about the death of someone close may be the hardest thing you ever have to do.
It will help if you give your child a little bit of information at a time. If you say too much in one go, he may become confused and upset because he doesn’t understand.
Your preschooler may believe that the person who died still eats, sleeps and does normal things, but that they now do them up in the sky, or down in the ground.
Keep talking about the person who has died. You could try offering information, remembering fond times and sharing your feelings. This is one of the most important things you can do to help your child through his grief. One of your preschooler’s greatest fears is that he will forget the person who has died.
How can I explain death to my preschooler?
Don’t dodge his questions
It’s normal for your child to be curious about death, even if a loved one hasn’t died. In fact, less emotionally fraught times are good opportunities for helping your child cope when he does lose someone. Answer his questions about death, and don’t be afraid to read stories that touch on it.
Expect the subject to come up repeatedly
Try to encourage your preschooler to ask questions. As a way of trying to understand, he may repeatedly ask the same questions, so keep answering him patiently. There is no need to give a long explanation. It is often best to start by asking: “What do you think?” and then build on your child’s answer. If you don’t know the answer to what he’s asking, be honest and say so.
Your preschooler is likely to come up with new questions as his awareness of death and his cognitive skills grow. Don’t worry if you feel you didn’t explain adequately the first time. Just keep answering your child’s questions as patiently as you can.
Give brief, simple answers
At this age, it’s most helpful to explain death in terms of physical functions that have ceased, rather than launching into a complicated discussion of a particular illness: “Now that Uncle John has died, his body has stopped working. He can’t walk, run, eat or sleep any more, but he doesn’t feel any pain.”
Keep the reasons simple
When trying to explain the cause of the death, be direct and straightforward: “Grandpa was very old and his body couldn’t work any more.” If Grandpa was ill before he died, reassure your child that if she becomes unwell with a cold or the flu, it doesn’t mean she’ll die too. Explain that there are different ways people get ill.
Express your own emotions
Grieving is an important part of healing, for both children and adults. Don’t frighten your child with great displays of unhappiness, but don’t make the subject off-limits either. Explain that grown-ups need to cry sometimes too, and that you feel sad because you miss Granny. Your preschooler is keenly aware of changes in your mood, and he’ll be even more worried if he senses that something is wrong but that you’re trying to hide it.
Common adult phrases for death, such as “passed away”, “lost” or “gone to sleep” can be confusing or misleading for a young child. Your preschooler may worry that going to bed at night means he’ll die too.
Try to stick to describing the deceased person as having died or being dead. It may seem harsh, but it will make much more sense to your preschooler.
Reassure your little one
Because young children think the world revolves around them, it’s not unusual for them to think that something they did or said caused the death. Make sure your child knows this is not the case.
Remember the deceased
Children need solid ways to mourn the death of a loved one. At this age, your preschooler probably isn’t ready to attend a funeral, but you could light a candle at home with him, sing a song, draw a picture, or release a balloon. It also helps to remind him of the good relationship he had with the person who died.
If you have experienced a miscarriage, you’ll undoubtedly grieve. But you may be surprised to discover that your preschooler is also upset, even if his understanding of the pregnancy was a bit patchy. He may feel guilty over the death, or upset at losing the “big brother” role you’d been preparing him for. Let your child say goodbye by making a special gift for the baby.
Try not to downplay the death of a pet
This is many children’s first brush with death, and it can be a deeply tragic event for them. A family dog or cat is often a child’s first friend, offering unconditional love and companionship. Offer him lots of sympathy for his loss.
Do your best to get your preschooler’s life back to “normal”
Don’t completely abandon your child’s usual schedule, as his routine gives him a sense of security. He needs to get to bed on time, get up on time, eat meals on time, and, if he’s in playgroup, go back to the friends and fun he has there.
Don’t try to be perfect
If you’re deeply bereaved by a recent death, you can’t expect to answer every question perfectly the first time. Ask for help from friends and family, and remember that the more you look after yourself, the better you’ll be able to help your child cope, both now and later.