What we know about young children and grief

All young children will experience the death of somebody close to them differently. Even babies will notice the loss of security, safety and care they received from a parent or caregiver who has died. Young children may not understand what it means to die or be able to process the permanence of death, but they will each grieve in their own way. 

 At SeeSaw we believe that, just as dying is a natural part of living, all reactions too are natural and normal responses to grief. Reactions may vary depending on the child’s age and stage of development, their character, and the existence of secure and supportive relationships with their caregivers. 

 

 

Common grief reactions in young children

Talking about death with young children

Talking to very young children about death and dying is difficult when your natural instinct might be to protect them from such information. Adults often try to soften the information by using words and phrases like ‘lost’, ‘gone to sleep’, ‘gone’, ‘passed’, ‘become a star’, all of which can add to the young child’s confusion.  

 Children under five understand their world in concrete terms therefore phrases like these are not helpful to young children and can be very confusing. Instead give clear, honest explanations using clear language and in small pieces like a simple jigsaw puzzle.  

 When breaking news to children that someone important has died, you may want to:  

  • begin by saying, “I have something very sad to tell you…”  
  • find a quiet and comfortable place to break the news, somewhere where you will not be disturbed  
  • allow unhurried time for the child to respond and ask any questions  
  • simply tell the child that the person has died. This may be enough at first 
  • follow the child’s lead for more information – if they ask a question they are probably ready for the answer, so  reply to the question but avoid giving too much information or detail  
  • be prepared to follow this up later with further  explanations or repetition of the information you have already given 

 When explaining what death means, you may want to consider explaining that:

  • when someone dies their body stops working  
  • they don’t feel anything any more like pain, heat or cold 
  • they don’t need to eat or drink anything  
  • their body is a bit like an empty shell   
  • all that made the person so very special, like their smile, the little things they did and said, are what we remember, and these things will stay with us forever  

What children need from their caregivers

Young children need physical contact to feel safe and secure – gentle rocking, stroking, carrying or cuddling.  

It is by repeating questions that young children will gradually understand what has happened.  

Young children need to know that it is ok to have fun and to play and do normal activities. Having fun does not mean that they have forgotten the person who died.  

Help young children to express difficult feelings in safe ways by talking about how they are feeling. Talk about different feelings using pictures or storybooks.  

Remembering can be healing so offer opportunities to talk about the person who died. Look at photographs together, tell funny stories, and remember special times as well as the difficult ones. Young children may have few memories of the person who died so building a bigger picture of them will be important – things they did when they were little, where they lived, favourite hobbies, foods etc.  

Your hope and faith in their ability to recover may be needed when theirs fails.  

How parents and carers model this will be crucial. This is why, at SeeSaw, we encourage adults to take care of themselves in order to look after their children. Just as on an aeroplane the instruction in the safety briefing is to put on your own air pressure safety mask before fitting your child’s, so it is following a bereavement. This might be by seeking your own support through grief counselling with a charity such as Cruse.  

Seeking help

Over time, most young children cope well with the death of a close family member. However, if you are concerned that your child is feeling overwhelmed by their emotions or that their grief reactions are extreme or persistent, speak to your GP for advice and support. 

 

Useful Links

SeeSaw Website 

 SeeSaw Under 5s Booklet 

 CBUK 

 Winston’s Wish  

Resources
Suggested Readings

Always and Forever

by Debi Gliori and Alan Durant

When Fox dies the rest of his family are absolutely distraught. How will Mole, Otter and Hare go on without their beloved friend? But, months later, Squirrel reminds them all of how funny Fox used to be, and they realise that Fox is still there in their hearts and memories.

I miss you: a first look at death

by Pat Thomas

This reassuring picture book explores the difficult issue of death for young children. Children’s feelings and questions about this sensitive subject are looked at in a simple but realistic way. This book helps them to understand their loss and come to terms with it.

Lifetimes

by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

A pet . . . a friend . . . or a relative dies, and it must be explained to a child. This sensitive book is a useful tool in explaining to children that death is a part of life and that, eventually, all living things reach the end of their own special lifetimes

Missing Mummy

by Rebecca Cobb

Honest and straightforward, this touching story explores the many emotions a bereaved child may experience, from anger and guilt to sadness and bewilderment. Ultimately, Missing Mommy focuses on the positive—the recognition that the child is not alone but still part of a family that loves and supports him.

The Rabbit Listened

by Cori Doerrfeld

The bear thinks Taylor should get angry, but that’s not quite right either. … With its spare, poignant text and irresistibly sweet illustration, The Rabbit Listened is about how to comfort and heal the people in your life, by taking the time to carefully, lovingly, gently listen.

What does dead mean?

by By Caroline Jay and Jenni Thomas

What Does Dead Mean? is a beautifully illustrated book that guides children gently through 17 of the ‘big’ questions they often ask about death and dying.