Elsie Iudicello’s 5-year-old son has dealt with two heartbreaking losses in his short life—the beloved family dog, Frankie, died, and less than a year later, his great-aunt passed away after a long battle with cancer. “We prayed for her every night,” says Iudicello, of South Florida. “But my son was able to handle his aunt’s passing better because of how he talked about Frankie all the time in the months in between.”
Making death a part of normal conversations is vital for children of all ages, experts say, but young ones especially benefit because the concept of life being over is confusing and they usually don’t have the vocabulary to fully express how they’re feeling. Learn how you can gently bring up the topic with toddlers and preschoolers—as well as what to do when a loss strikes your family.
Try to help your child understand death before it touches her life significantly, says Ashleigh Schopen, a Certified Child Life Specialist who provides support for the siblings of intensivecare patients at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Start by pointing out some of the cycles in nature. “I recently talked to my 3-year-old about our houseplant that died,” says Schopen. “I told her it’s no longer living and what that meant: It can’t take up water anymore or grow with sunlight. And I made sure to add that it can’t come back again, because the permanence of death is something that young kids have the hardest time understanding.”
Showing your child the butterfly that died on the porch, or fruit that was alive but now looks rotten, are other ways to bring up the topic, suggests Judith Simon Prager, Ph.D., a clinical homeopath and coauthor of Verbal First Aid. “Even a bubble that bursts can show how all things come to an end,” she notes.
You can also raise the subject if it comes up in a movie like Finding Nemo and when death tangentially affects your family, such as when a neighbor or even your best friend’s dog dies. “The more often you talk about death—and what it means—the less scared and confused your child will be when it happens to a family member,” says Schopen.
“Try to avoid euphemisms like, ‘She’s in a better place,’ because they can be scary or confusing for young children,” says Schopen. Instead, talk to your child in a familiar spot, where he has a favorite toy nearby to help him feel more comfortable. Then, as he’s playing, be honest and concrete, even if it might sound a little cold: “You could say, ‘Grandpa died. When people die, their body stops working and they can’t eat, walk, or play anymore. You won’t be able to see them anymore.’ ”
If your child responds by asking if the person’s body can be fixed, say, “When a body stops working, it can never start again,” suggests Jill Macfarlane, program director at The Sharing Place, a nonprofit in Salt Lake City that helps children cope with the death of a loved one. But it’s also common for toddlers not to have any questions, so don’t worry if your child seems uninterested. In fact, it’s not likely that your toddler will cry, even if you do. “Young children don’t attach the same level of emotion as adults because they don’t fully grasp the concept of death,” says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D.
Finally, make sure your child knows it’s not his fault. Preschoolers tend to think that the world revolves around them, so they may feel some misguided sense of blame. Reassure your child that it was nothing he did—and that no one could have stopped the death from happening. “He may have thought something bad about Grandma, and now that she’s dead, he’s afraid he made it happen,” says Barbara Coloroso, author of Parenting Through Crisis: Helping Kids in Times of Loss, Grief, and Change. “Explain that there was nothing anyone did that made her go away, and we can’t bring her back again.”
After you’ve lost someone you love, try to stick as close to your child’s normal routine as possible (even if you need to get a friend to take her to preschool or ballet class). Doing this may help ease some of the behavioral changes that are common in young kids, such as acting silly or hyper or regressing to old habits like thumb-sucking, says Macfarlane.
Expect your child to keep asking you what happened or when your relative or pet will be coming back. “Day after day, she might ask you the same questions,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “Don’t think that she’s looking for deeper meaning, because she’s not. She needs you to answer the questions consistently, as painful as it is, because it will help her start to grasp the finality of death.”
During this time, you don’t need to hide your feelings from your child or pretend things are fine. “If she sees you cry, explain what you’re feeling and why,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “You can also suggest how to respond. For instance, you could say, ‘I’m feeling sad because I’m missing Grandma. I could use a hug!’ ”
Soon after Dr. Kennedy-Moore’s mom died, her kids thought that they were “going high enough on the swing that maybe they’d see Grandma in heaven,” she recalls. “Their excitement was touching, but also heartbreaking for me.” Iudicello’s son played “dead dog,” reenacting the family pet’s death over and over again through pretend play. “He was trying to understand it,” says Iudicello, founder of Farmhouse Schoolhouse blog. “There is an urge to say, ‘Let’s play something nice and happy!’ but this is how he sorted through his feelings.”
You may even find your child acting out scenarios about death, which is a healthy way to process her feelings. “Her play is like a book you can read to understand her thoughts,” says Margret Nickels, Ph.D., director of the Erikson Institute Center for Children and Families. She may have some mistaken notions that you can clear up. “For example, if your child pretends that she’s feeding her doll ice cream and then all of a sudden the doll gets sick and dies, you could step in and say, ‘You know, Uncle John’s heart stopped working because his heart was sick, and doctors couldn’t help him. It really wasn’t because of anything he ate,’ ” says Dr. Nickels.
“Whether or not a young child should go to a funeral is the number-one question parents ask me,” says Schopen. Her response: yes, if a child expresses an interest in going. But prepare your child for what the funeral will be like, and ask a friend or a sitter to join to help watch your child (and take him to a separate room or outside to play, if needed) so you can grieve. Having your little one around may in fact bring you comfort. “It was so good to have my son there as a ray of sunshine on a sad day,” says Jaime Livingood, of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, who took Colton, 3, to her 93-year-old grandmother’s wake.
Afterward, continue to help your child remember your loved one. “Open the door to conversation by saying something like, ‘Grandpa misses Grandma. Could you draw him a picture?’ ” suggests Dr. Kennedy-Moore. You can also leave a photo album of your loved one on the table so your child can look at it with you when she’s ready. The healing process takes time, but you’ll get through it together.