How to Talk to Toddlers & Preschoolers about Death & Disaster
What to say when the unthinkable happens
Death of a Family Member
The death of a loved one can be life-altering for everyone in the family—and the impact on the family’s youngest members should be acknowledged. “If they’re old enough to love, they’re old enough to grieve,” says Emilio Parga, director and founder of The Solace Tree, a center for grieving children and adolescents in Reno, Nevada.
Again, toddlers and preschoolers don’t have the cognitive ability to understand the permanence of death, but they can sense that something has changed in their world, and they do feel the impact. Routines are thrown out the window and caregivers may change—disrupting the schedules that help this age group feel secure.
What to Say: “I’m a firm believer that there are always truthful words we can offer, even to a child as young as two to explain what happened,” says Mary Gravina, assistant vice president of counseling services at Hospice Care Network’s Child Bereavement Program in Woodbury, NY. She suggests using age-appropriate, simple language, and being open to questions that are sure to come—days, weeks, or even years later. Parga adds that, again, you should talk to your child in a place that is comfortable and safe for him or her—be it the living room sofa or a play fort.
Parga recommends reassuring your child that even though you are upset, your feelings for her have not changed. An example he offers is: “Mommy’s heart just hurts right now, but she still loves you very much.”
What to Do: Maintaining routines as much as possible can also be a big help during the difficult aftermath. “Do the best you can to stick to the child’s normal schedule,” says Gravina. “Assign one caregiver so they aren’t bouncing around from house to house—give them as much stability as you can manage.”
As for the wake and funeral, you can involve your child in this process if you feel he is able to handle it. If you do bring him, be sure to prepare him for what he might see in language he can easily process and understand. For example, you might tell him that his grandpa will be lying in a box called a casket, and that grandpa’s eyes will be closed.
Another way to communicate with your young child is through reading together—there are books about death targeted to every age group, including two- to four-year-olds. “Books are a great resource to open a discussion with your child,” says Parga, who has authored several books, including Love Never Stops and No Child Should Grieve Alone.
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