Talking with Toddlers About the Death of a Family MemberLaura Betts, LICSW, MSW
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.
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.
Save a memento. Consider keeping an item from the recently deceased relative, a token that can be a reminder of that person as your child gets older. A baseball glove, jewelry box, watch, etc.—anything that will represent them to your child will do. You may choose to wait until your child is older to give the item if it is fragile, or it can be something they appreciate as they age. (Learn how to make a memory box with your child here.)
Get help. If you have concerns about how your child is expressing grief, it is important to discuss this with your pediatrician who may recommend a consultation with a mental health professional who specializes in therapeutic work with very young children and their parents.
Maintain your own supports. The loss of a family member, especially your own parent, will be a time of grieving for you. The more you feel supported, the better able you will be to support your toddler.
Professional tips for families:
- Grieving help from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
- Tips on dealing with loss from the National Mental Health Information Center
- Age-by-age conversations about loss for families
Books for toddlers:
Books for preschool/school age children:
- I Miss You: A First Look At Death
- Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies
- When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death
More Babble resources on dealing with loss:
This information is intended to be a conversation starting point and not to replace consultation with a mental health professional. Knowing your child the way you do, adjust or edit this script and these recommendations to meet his or her needs and comprehension. If you have concerns about your toddler, contact your pediatrician and request a referral for a mental health professional who specializes in work with young children. Click here to find help for working with your child through this and other touchy topics.