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Supporting young children in grief - 2 to 5 years

About two years ago, after celebrating her 99th birthday, our beloved "Granny-Oma," my husband's grandmother, died. At the time, my children were 4 and 6 years old and we were faced with explaining the mystery of death and dying to them for the very first time.

Using simple and straightforward language, we explained that Oma had died, which meant that her body did not work anymore, and that we would not be able to see her again. We read the book Lifetimes together, and we celebrated her life with extended family at a funeral.

Time passed, and one evening we found ourselves chatting about our favourite memories of Oma over dinner. The kids talked about the things that they remembered, and my husband in and I shared stories of her homemade marzipan birthday cakes and jelly donuts. Then my daughter Maia, the youngest, began to recall the story of Oma's death. She talked about the funeral, and the people that were there. Finishing her story she said, "And then Oma disappeared."

"Disappeared?!" I said, "Oma didn't disappear!" It turns out that when we had told the kids that we would not be able to see Oma again, little Maia had understood that to mean that she had disappeared into thin air! Being her first experience of death, Maia had no other frame of reference for the experience beyond what we had told her, and what she had experienced firsthand. Since the kids never saw Oma again, Maia had determined with her creative 4-year-old mind that she must have disappeared! Though we had explained what we thought was important, we hadn't realized that Maia also had some unspoken questions that had gone unanswered.

A Preschoolers' Understanding of Death

Preschool-age children are egocentric and see themselves as the centre of their worlds. Because of this, they may view a loved one's death as a punishment for something they did wrong, or as something that could also happen to them. Children at this age need concrete information and repeated reassurance that they are not to blame and that they are safe. They also have difficulty understanding the permanency of death, and it might be seen as reversable or temporary.

How to Respond

Young children need explanations that are short, concrete, and truthful, and they may need these responses to be repeated over and over again. Euphemisms such as "she passed away," or "he's in a better place," are confusing to children and may lead to misunderstanding.

Because they often engage in "magical" thinking and will fill in any gaps in information with their own creative ideas, it is important to clarify any misunderstandings and to revisit the experience over time. Revisiting the loss is a very necessary and important part of teaching young children about death. As adults, it is hard for us to know what a child understands, and so checking in with children over time can give us a window into their world and the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions. Young children will also develop the capacity to understand death more and more as they grow and mature, and so details of the loss may need to be revisited in order for them to be incorporated into their growing understanding.

Preschool-aged and young school-aged children will often play out significant events or storylines in their play. Your presence as they play will give you an opportunity to listen in and to correct any misunderstandings. Retelling the "story" of the loss, either verbally, by drawing a picture, or by making a book, will give the child a frame of reference for the experience of death, and will also help to clarify important details.

Encourage young children to share their feelings and ask questions, and accept and validate the things they share. Some questions children have might be unspoken, such as: Did I cause this to happen? Can it happen to me? Who will take care of me now? Address these concerns even if they are not asked directly.

Keeping consistent and predictable routines, and providing a variety of expressive and sensory play opportunities will help young children to feel safe and supported.

Children's Grief Reactions

Children's grief reactions may vary from day to day or moment to moment and can include guilt, anxiety, anger, fear, and sadness. However, young children can only hold intense feelings of grief for short periods of time, and so they may express their feelings and then return abruptly back to regular activities such as play. Though this may seem insensitive or abrupt to adults, this is completely normal, and play is necessary for children to cope with the intense and difficult feelings that come up. Preschool aged children lack the language skills and ability to be able to fully express their feelings verbally. This does not mean that they are not experiencing very big emotions. It simply means that they express these big feelings and emotions through other means such as in their behaviour and in their play. This age group may regress to earlier stages such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, baby talk, and fear of separation from caregivers. It is important to understand that regression is a normal response to grief, and is not a behavioural problem.

With Love Preschool gift box

The gift box for preschool aged children meets children's need for information, comfort, and emotion processing. Something Very Sad Happened was written by Bonnie Zucker, a licensed Psychologist, to explain death to her own young child after not being able to find this resource for herself. It is written in very simple and direct language that is developmentally appropriate for children as young as 2 years old, and is meant to be personalized by the reader. Since each loss is unique, the reader can personalize the details of the book to the child's own situation. The gift box also contains a plush fleece fox stuffy, as a comfort item. Aside from being the perfect size to cuddle and hold, the fox has a little pocket which is meant for a wish or a worry. Asking children about their fears and their wishes gives adults the opportunity to hear about our young child's feelings and ideas about the world. Externalizing a worry or a wish by writing it down and putting it somewhere safe, such as inside the pocket of a stuffy, gives children both the opportunity to express what is on their mind, and some distance and safety from it as well. Lastly, the preschool gift box includes two 2oz containers of play dough. Engaging in physical and sensory activities, such as playing with play dough, provides a therapeutic way for children to release energy, feel grounded and regulated. Having their hands busy also tends to lead to the expression of thoughts and feelings, asking questions, and/or acting out storylines related to the new things they are learning. More than anything though, the child who receives a gift box just for them will feel seen and cared for.

References and Resources:

Sesame Street’s Grief Series

National Alliance for Grieving Children

Children and Youth Grief Network

Kids Grief

Canadian Virtual Hospice

The Dougy Center

Books to help support children with grief

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