Talking with Toddlers About the Death of a Family Member
What to say about the loss of a grandparent or other close relative
When your toddler asks where grandma is, you can repeat, “She’s not here. I miss her.”
Though it may seem like a very clipped explanation, this is what your child needs at around 24 months. When your toddler is older and moving into the preschool years, you will be able to explain what death is more fully. Right now, it’s important to keep your explanation simple and to not make promises that your loved one will come back or that they just went someplace, like the store, on a trip, etc. (Learn more about how older children grieve here.)
Depending on your spiritual beliefs, the discussion of where the relative is now may be something your family will discuss. It’s important to try to keep whatever message—Grandma is in Heaven, Pop Pop is watching over you—very simple and to be careful about the language you use, as toddlers can become confused by explanations such as, “He went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”
What to Do
Make funerals optional. Whether your toddler attends your loved one’s funeral will be a decision you may need to make. Funerals and memorial services are an important part of your grieving process, but could be overwhelming and confusing for toddlers, especially if they see you upset. If you know that your child can sit with a familiar attachment figure—another parent, grandparent, or family friend—and that he has demonstrated being comfortable around other grieving people, then consider bringing him. He can also stay home with a person he feels very comfortable with, which can allow you to grieve openly at the service.
Go heavy on the hugs. Because toddlers are so aware of the emotions of their caregivers and can become distressed even without understanding the circumstances, it is very important to provide reassurance that they will be loved and cared for. Give extra hugs, cuddles, and kisses, and other expressions of love and affection. Keep your children’s routines as regular as possible, including bedtime, mealtime, and their time with you.
Reassure repeatedly. Especially if this relative was a regular fixture in your child’s life, you’ll want to remind your child that she is loved much and will be taken care of. If possible, maintain some of the routines and activities your child was used to doing with the relative.
Keep the loved one’s memory present. Keep pictures of your family’s deceased loved one around the home, especially those that include your toddler and their relative. It’s not necessary to spare your child from seeing these images or talking about them—in fact, the opposite is true: Noting these fond memories can make the grieving process more tangible and palatable for your child and for you.
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