While death is one of the most difficult topics to discuss with young children, it is an inevitable and inescapable part of life. Children encounter the concept of death sooner than we realise as this is a common theme in children’s stories and fairy tales, on TV as well as finding those lifeless butterflies, shrivelled up bugs and dead birds in the garden. The loss of a much-loved family pet is sometimes a young child’s first experience of death and loss and the first heart-breaking conversation you find yourself having to navigate.
Despite exposure of this nature, there are aspects of death which pre-schoolers struggle to fully understand. They are unable to grasp that death is a permanent state which inevitably happens to everyone. To be fair, we as adults also find this reality pretty scary to contemplate and prefer avoiding the topic if we are truly honest with ourselves!
Children tend to make sense of death by rationalising events, thereby creating the belief that the deceased still eat, sleep, and do normal things — except that they do them “up in the sky/ in heaven” or “down in the ground/in their grave” or “where we can’t see them”.
How to broach the subject of death will depend on the nature of the loss and how close the deceased is to you and your family. The closer the relationship with the child, the more difficult it will be as opposed to explaining the loss of someone they do not know that well. Depending on your unique situation, the details of the conversation will differ but the age-appropriate guidelines below may be helpful to have on hand.
- Keep It Short And Simple While Validating The Emotions Felt
Young children can’t handle too much information at once. At this age, it is best to explain death in terms of physical functions that have ceased, rather than trying to manage a complicated discussion of a particular illness or the causes of the death. When explaining the death of Teacher Naledi’s mother to the Red Hats class, I used the following style of language:
Boys and girls, I want to explain to you all why teacher Naledi is not at school today. Do you remember that she was also away last week because she went to visit her mommy who was very, very sick in hospital? I am sorry to tell you that Teacher Naledi’s mommy didn’t get better and she has died.
(pause for a while for the children to process and then continue)
When someone dies, it means that their heart stops beating and their body stops working. They can’t get up again, they can’t breathe, run or walk and they can’t eat or sleep or talk anymore. Teacher Naledi is very sad because she loved her mommy very much and she is going to miss being with her again.
(pause for a while for the children to process and then continue)
That means teacher Naledi is very, very sad. How can we help her? Yes, draw her a picture, send her our love, give her lots of hugs when she comes back.
(pause for a while for the children to process and then manage the feedback, the suggestions, the questions, ending on planning how to make cards, pictures and love letters to help.)
- Avoid Euphemisms As They Can Cause Confusion
As adults, we tend to use phrases such as: “Granny has gone to a happier place/ is sleeping forever” or “Gogo has passed away or gone away” or “Jamie is resting in peace now”. Pre-schoolers take things very literally and may fear going to sleep in case they don’t wake up again or if people “go away” to the office or the shops, they won’t return. Why would Granny leave the family they loved so much for a “happier place”?
These well-meaning answers simply raise more questions in a child’s mind and elevate the anxiety around the unknown.
- Tread Carefully Around God And Heaven
The concept of God, angels and a heavenly resting place may play a key role in your conversation, depending on your particular religious beliefs. These have a very special role to play in your family dynamic but it is wise to take time to think carefully about what you say as words which are meant to comfort a young child may in fact confuse them further. Saying: “Jack’s happy now, because he’s in heaven” can be confusing as everyone loved Jack and are totally heartbroken now that he has gone. Why would those left behind be so unhappy if he has happily left us all and gone to heaven?
Another difficult one is: “Gracie was so good that God wanted her with him,” as children tend to confuse this with: “If God wanted to take Gracie, will he take me too? Should I be good so I can be with her in heaven, or bad so I can stay here with Mom and Dad?”
Instead, I suggest the following responses which name the emotions and reassure your child without adding to her worries: “We are all so sad that Grampa isn’t here anymore and we will miss him very much. But we know that he is with God now so we can be calm and peaceful.” Or “Remember how Pappa always used to pray to God every day? Well, now he is with God and we can be happy that his pain has gone”.
- Don’t Dodge Questions
It’s normal for your pre-schooler to be curious about death, even if they haven’t yet lost a loved one. In fact, less emotionally fraught times are good opportunities for laying groundwork that will help your child cope when they do lose someone or when they simply start asking questions. Answer all questions about death, and don’t be afraid to read stories about children whose pets or grandparents die.
- Express Your Own Emotions
Grieving is an important part of healing, for both children and adults. Don’t frighten your child with excessive grief, but don’t make the subject off-limits, either.
Explain that grownups need to cry sometimes, too, and that you feel sad because you miss Grannny/ your best friend/ your Aunt. Your preschooler is keenly aware of changes in your mood, and they’ll be even more worried if they sense that something is wrong but that you’re trying to hide it. You could use words like:
“My heart is feeling very sad because I miss Grampy very much. Crying helps me feel a bit better and so does your hug! Thank you for sitting with me and wiping my tears away”
- Be Prepared For A Variety Of Reactions
Children not only feel sorrow over the death of a loved one, they may also feel guilt or anger. Reassure your pre-schooler that nothing they said or did caused the death. Don’t be surprised if they express anger toward you, the doctors and nurses, or even the deceased.
Also expect that they may have tantrums more often, either as a way to get their own sadness out (though the tantrum may appear to be about something else) or as a reaction to the tension and sadness in your household.
Regressive behaviour can emerge such as bedwetting when they have been totally dry at night, nail biting, mood swings and tantrums. Deal with these gently, bearing in mind the context and support your child needs to get through this stage.
- Making Sense Of Loss
Expect the same questions to come up over and over again. This is a child’s way of trying to make sense of the scary, confusing events. They are also likely to come up with new questions as their awareness of death and their cognitive skills grow. Don’t worry that you didn’t explain the death adequately the first time — your child’s ongoing questions are normal. Just keep answering them as patiently as you can.
They may also ask questions that we struggle to answer, such as “Why did God take Granny away?”, “Can Pappa still see me?”, Why didn’t the doctor make Gogo better?”
It is ok to tell children that you don’t know the answer to some of their questions. You can explore with them what you believe and ask them what they think. One of the best ways to support a grieving child is to be willing to listen to their questions and worries and give them honest information. Children also need to know that adults grieve too and that you don’t have all the answers.
- Memorialize The Deceased
Children need concrete ways to mourn the death of a loved one. Your pre-schooler may not be ready to attend a funeral with coffins present but they can participate in memorial services in whatever ways they might feel comfortable. They can light a candle at home, sing a song, draw a picture, or take part in some other ritual observance. Creating a special spot in the garden with stones and trinkets can be a very healing exercise and hanging flags and pictures in the trees are also a reminder of the deceased. It also helps to talk about the good relationship they had with the person who died: “Remember when you and Grampy went strawberry picking? You really loved him, didn’t you? I know because I could see how much you loved being together, having lots of fun.”
If your child wants to attend the funeral or other service and you feel comfortable with the nature of the service, carefully explain what will take place, how other people may be acting, and as many other details about the event as possible.
- Discuss Miscarriage
If you and your partner have experienced a miscarriage, you’ll undoubtedly grieve. But you may be surprised to discover that your pre-schooler is also upset, even if their understanding of the pregnancy was still a bit sketchy. They may feel guilty over the death or mourn the loss of the “big sister/brother” role you’d been preparing them for. And they’ll need lots of encouragement to believe that this kind of death is uncommon, especially if you try for another baby.
Explain that babies who miscarry are usually not healthy enough to live outside their mommy’s tummy. Let your child say goodbye by drawing a picture or making a special gift for the departed baby, talking about the loss and using the name which you may have chosen.
- Don’t 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 and best playmate, offering unconditional love and companionship. Feeding the parakeet or goldfish regularly may have made them feel proud and grown up.
Try not to say, “Don’t feel bad, Rover is in heaven now” — this teaches children that their very real sadness is inappropriate. Instead, offer lots of sympathy for their loss, and expect the same kinds of ongoing mourning and repeated questions that you’d get if a person they cared for had died. Burying the pet in a special spot and allowing for rituals around visiting and saying goodbye are all part of the healing process.
- Help Her Respond To Media Coverage Of Death
Your child may still be somewhat oblivious to the widely publicized deaths of media figures or to news coverage of national disasters or wars. But they will pick up on the fact that you’re sad or anxious, and they’re also likely to hear older children discussing these events.
Reassure pre-schoolsers that “people are angry and fighting with each other,” and that while that makes you sad, you’re there to take care of them and that you will do everything you can to keep everyone safe.
- Do Your Best To Get Your Preschooler’s Life Back To “Normal”
Don’t compound your child’s loss by abandoning the schedule and activities that anchor their life and give them a sense of security. Some upset is to be expected, of course, but the sooner your pre-schooler’s routine gets back to normal, the easier it will be for them. They need to get to bed on time, get up on time, eat meals on time, and, if they’re in nursery school, go back to the friends and fun they have there.
SOME TRICKY QUESTIONS AND POSSIBLE ANSWERS
“What does ‘dead’ mean?”
Related questions include those about how the dead continue to function: “How did Grandpa get up to heaven? What does he like to eat up there?”. Since a pre-schooler doesn’t grasp the absence of physical activity, these questions are very real.
Gently explain: ” ‘Dead’ means a person or animal stops breathing and his or her body doesn’t work anymore. They don’t eat or sleep or feel cold or hot. Plants die too — every living thing does. Usually people and animals only die when they’ve grown very old.”
“When will you die?” Children often ask questions that seem shocking or callous to adults. What your pre-schooler really means is, “What will happen to me? Will I still be taken care of?”
Even if they don’t ask outright, it’s wise to anticipate worries about how stable their life will be: “I want you to know that I plan to be here until I’m very, very old and you’re all grown up.”
“Why is Auntie Bella crying?” If you’ve just explained that Uncle John died, such a question may seem strange. But your pre-schooler’s understanding of death is still sketchy enough that they need help understanding the emotions of those around them: “Uncle John died and that means his body has stopped working and he isn’t every going to come back. That is very hard for Auntie Bella and she is crying because she misses him very much.”
“When will Grandpa come back? Will he be here for my birthday?” Related questions include things like, “Can we drive to heaven to visit Grandpa?” Although you’ve explained the death seemingly endless times, your pre-schooler still doesn’t grasp its finality and permanence.
Explain as patiently as you can, “Remember that Grandpa died. He can’t come back and we can’t visit him. He won’t be here for your birthday, but we’ll remember the times he was here.” “Let’s go and find your favourite photo of Grandpa and put it where you can look at it lots and lots”
“Can Granny get a new Grandpa now?” Because adults can often fix or replace things in our daily lives, children may wonder about replacing the deceased — especially if they have friends with step-grandparents.
Gently give her the facts: “If they want to, Granny might get married again someday. But her new husband wouldn’t be the same as Grandpa. Grandpa died and can’t come back.”
“Was it my fault?” At this age, kids are all ego, and believe that their thoughts and actions affect everything around them. If a child was mad at the dog for destroying one of her toys, and maybe even said, ‘I’m gonna kill you,’ and then a few weeks later the dog dies, they can easily think they caused that, says Michael Towne, a grief specialist at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center.
Though your pre-schooler probably won’t say it out loud, feelings of guilt are common and worth anticipating. Give her reassurance even if they never vocalize such thoughts: “I want you to know that the dog died because he was very old, and his body wasn’t working very well any more. None of us did anything to make that happen.”
“Did Uncle John die because he did something bad?” Try to make sure your pre-schooler never equates death with punishment: “No, definitely not. Your uncle died in a car crash that was a terrible accident, but it wasn’t his fault that he died, and it wasn’t because he did anything bad.”
“I remember Auntie Gilly used to snuggle with me when I was a baby.” If your child shares memories that they clearly can’t really have, don’t correct her. This just means the lost loved one is real to her, and stories like this bring her a tremendous amount of comfort.
In closing, I encourage you as parents to embrace these difficult conversations with your children as they are key in building resilience, fortitude, empathy and understanding in your young child. Providing your family with the tools to navigate life’s highs and lows enables you to feel more empowered as you take control of the impact such events have on your life and those whom you love.
Be brave, engage and keep talking!
Grief and resilience in children and families: Resources for counseling professionals, parents, and children. Ashley Smith Hall James Madison University