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Helping Your Preschooler Grieve

How To Help Your Child Cope With Grief

Every once in a while, 3-year-old Zachary goes to sleep clutching a picture of "Poppa," his maternal grandfather. Zachary's mother, Hannah, says he was very close to his Poppa. Last October, Zachary's grandfather unexpectedly died.

Hannah, like many parents, worried about grieving in front of her son and the effect her emotional state would have on him. "I tried to be open about my grief because I think it's more harmful to hide it. Children sense when you're trying to hide something." Hannah was right. Sometimes, well-meaning adults try to hide their grief from children, not wanting to upset them, but it's much healthier to allow children to observe how adults handle grief.

Danny Mize, Director of The Kid's Place, a grieving center, advises parents to let their children see family members mourning. "Model your own feelings related to your grief," says Mize. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 do not know how to respond to the loss of a loved one and will take cues from other family members on how to act.

Children handle loss in ways that are much different than adults. A child may react to news of death in ways adults feel is inappropriate, wanting to go play or seeming to display no sorrow. This is perfectly normal behavior. Preschoolers are at a point in their development where abstract concepts such as death are difficult to understand. Children of all ages need to play as a way to find relief from the stress surrounding grief and to find a degree of normalcy while they come to terms with the events going on around them.

Very young children often do not understand the finality of death, and often think the deceased will return. They will often repeatedly ask when their loved one is returning, and may actively look for them. "Be prepared to answer questions over and over, especially in the case of preschoolers," says Mize. "Preschoolers have great difficulty grasping the concept of the permanency of death."

Sometimes adults further confuse the issue in the child's mind by telling the child their loved one "has gone to sleep" or use other such vague terms. Death should be explained in terms the child can understand, without using unnecessary euphemisms. "Passed away," "gone to sleep," "with the angels" and other such terms are gentler sounding, but can cloud a young child's mind.

Preschoolers often revert to babyish behavior, such as thumb sucking or asking for a bottle. They may ask many questions, or conversely, be unable to vocalize their feelings and concerns. Grief in children can have physical manifestations, such as bedwetting, stomachaches or headaches. Clinging to parents or other loved ones and fear of losing others is normal. "When Zachary's father came home from his trip, Zach asked him point blank, 'Are you going to die?'" says Hannah.

Children try to make sense of what is happening and can sometimes come to conclusions on their own. If the only time they see someone in the hospital is when they are dying, they may associate hospitals with dying. It is also hard for youngsters to grasp why death occurs. If told people die when they get sick, they may think, "I get sick," and wonder if everyone who gets sick will die. Hannah found that Zachary had questions to ask of his father the first night he returned home. They had a long conversation in which Zach asked if only men died, and if only old people die.

Talking to Your Preschooler About Death

  • Take advantage of everyday opportunities to introduce the concept of death before a death of a loved one occurs. Explain that every living thing dies, using examples from nature, such as plants and insects.
  • Don't try to shield children from knowledge about death or use vague terms when explaining death.
  • Remember, preschoolers cannot grasp abstract concepts. Explain death in clear, concrete terms they can understand.
  • After experiencing a loss, children will often "play death" and engage in magical thinking that their loved one will return.
  • Allow children to express their grief in their own way. Give them time and space to play. Encourage them to ask questions.

It is common for the grieving child to act out her inner turmoil by having tantrums or misbehaving. When Madeline's grandmother died she seemed to handle it well, or so the family thought. "Her tantrums months after my mother died were hard to take and we didn't understand where they were coming from," says Linda, Madeline's mother. "Sadly, my family and I underestimated Maddy's grief. We knew she understood on some level my mother wouldn't be back, and she seemed to move on with life so effortlessly that we thought she was OK, until our first Christmas without Nana. Then her whole world seemed to fall apart."

Parents may not always connect grief to misbehavior that begins months after the loss. "Two members of the same family can react differently," says Mize. "The grieving process may take longer for one of them. The process depends on many factors. The loss of a loved one is felt at different times and at different intensity. Grief has no time frame." The child may be dealing with their feelings of grief long after the adults in their life think they should "be over it." To help a child cope with her feelings instead of acting out, Mize suggests making an extra effort to talk together about the situation. "Communicate. Talk to your child about their feelings."

Parents need to help their children through the grieving process. "Every grieving child needs a safe place, safe people, safe peer group, and the opportunity to play," says Mize. "If parents provide this environment for children, through caring sensitive adults -- family, church, and friends -- these things will go a long way towards helping a child work through the grieving process. "

While sometimes the natural inclination may be to shield a child from grief, talking about the deceased and remembering them is an important part of the healing process. "Let your child know it is all right to acknowledge the memories and the presence of that person in your life," says Mize.

Linda and Madeline use special times to remember Madeline's grandmother. "We take flowers to my mother's grave and on birthdays we go through our picture albums. We share stories about Nana and stories from when I was young to help Madeline remember what a special person Nana was and will always be for us."

Suggested Books

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscalia, Ph.D.
Where's Jess? by Joy Johnson
When Someone Dies by Sharon Greenly
Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children by Linda Goldman

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