How to Talk to Toddlers & Preschoolers about Death & Disaster
What to say when the unthinkable happens
Death of a Pet
Talking about death is tricky, because we’re hardwired to avoid the subject. When a loss occurs in a family, parents may be grieving themselves, yet also have to find the words to explain to their toddler that his dog is gone, or tell a preschooler that her grandma won’t be visiting anymore. And when a disaster occurs that causes a major change in routine, children are sometimes affected the hardest.
While talking about any of these scenarios can be difficult, experts agree that speaking openly and honestly with your child is the best course. (Learn more about the grieving process for kids, here.)
When a beloved pet dies, it can be upsetting for everyone in the family and may be a child’s first exposure to death. While your instinct might be to protect your child from grief by hiding your emotions, don’t be afraid to show your sadness.
“Children will take cues from parents about what is okay in the grieving process, so it is very healthy to grieve in front of your child,” says Terese Vorsheck, director of the Highmark Caring Place, a center for grieving children and families with three locations in Pennsylvania.
What to Say: You should talk honestly with your child about the death of your pet, and have the conversation in a place where your child feels safe, such as at home. Nancy Peterson, a specialist with the Humane Society, says: “Try something like ‘Fluffy won’t be coming back to us, because his heart just didn’t work well anymore. But we all loved him, and he knew that—and we all miss him.’”
While children in the toddler to preschooler age range may not be able to comprehend the permanence of death and may not have the vocabulary skills to express what they’re really feeling, you can encourage expression through art.
What to Do: Peterson suggests creating a scrapbook or collage with your child to commemorate your lost pet—or create a journal together with words and pictures. “You can write some nice things about the pet, and then encourage your child to draw pictures or volunteer some words that you can write down for them,” Peterson says.
Another parental instinct might be to immediately wipe out all reminders of your pet from the house, thinking that the animal’s cage, toys, leash, or food bowl might make your child more upset. But that’s not necessarily so, says Peterson: “If you remove all traces of the animal immediately, a child might think that if something happened to him, that all traces he existed would be removed, too.”
Proceed slowly when removing the pet’s items from the house and consider keeping the pet’s favorite toy, collar, or other special object as a memorial. “Frame a photo of your pet and put that and the collar or other item in a special place—these small gestures will provide some comfort for your child.”
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