The death of a close relative, particularly the loss of your parent, is a difficult time for any family. As you work through your own grief, your toddler will experience the emotions of the whole family, changes in her routine, and her own sense of "something's not right …." By taking into consideration how much your child can comprehend and handle about this delicate time, you will be able to support her through the grieving process.
Please note: This article presents general guidelines for supporting toddlers through the loss of an extended family member. Children who lose a parent or sibling truly should seek the insight of a qualified therapist or other mental health professional, as different issues may arise with these more delicate circumstances.
What They Understand
Young toddlers are unable to understand death—especially its implications or permanence—but they are deeply aware of the feelings of the adults around them. (Remember, as early as 27 weeks, babies can pick up on their caregivers' emotions.) They will be affected by the changes in routine after the death of a family member; the funeral or other arrangements may interrupt normal schedules; and new faces may be present around the house.
And of course, your own normal grieving process may be jarring to your toddler. When kids see you or other caregivers crying or feeling their own loss, they will be distressed. Toddlers commonly express distress through disruption in their sleep and eating habits, and regression in their behavior. For older toddlers who have mastered toilet training, you may see temporary regression in toileting during the grieving process.
If the family member was a close relation (or a daily presence), your toddler will be aware that that person is no longer there and will ask for and feel a sense of loss for that relative. At this age, your toddler will not understand that the person will not return, so he may express confusion or anger at the absence. And if that relative was someone who provided regular care, your child will express sadness when experiencing the loss of this significant attachment figure.
What to Say
Without the vocabulary to express their emotions fully, it can be especially difficult to discuss death with young toddlers. Simple and short explanations are important because the meaning and enormity of death is not in their grasp.
Gently break the news to your toddler about the loss when you feel able to talk with her and not be overwhelmed by your own grief. To explain why the adults are upset, you can say something like:
Gramma died. She is not here anymore. I feel sad and wish she were here, too.