Often curiosity about death arises for preschoolers in the 4 to 5 year old range, but that can vary too. If a family member, close friend or pet has recently passed, there may be some conversation about this that sparks questions from your child.
As is true with many topics we discuss, it’s important to stay where your child is at and if they ask questions, answer them simply and honestly. If your child wants to know more, they will ask you. They may ask you one question today and two next week or two today and not bring it up again for a year. It varies for every child. As every family has their own beliefs or ideas about what is beyond dying, you would just answer them based on your perspective. If you and your spouse have different ideas about the answers, you can answer from your perspective and your spouse can share theirs. Honesty builds trust, and trust is at the heart of attachment and belonging. Being a trusted source of information for your child gives them the motivation to come to you when they are troubled or confused.
As we were talking about this at our coffee hours this month, I realized the hard part for me on this and other difficult topics is I sometimes tend to try to extend my daughter’s understanding by sharing more than she's asking for. I’m trying to educate her with more than just an answer to her one question, adding the answers I think I would want to know about. When I do this, I’m giving her all kinds of answers to questions that might arise for her. That ends up taking her off course and may keep her from asking what she wants to know. It also doesn’t help because (and this is the child development wisdom in the field as well), because she'll stop listening or only half listen to the things she wasn't curious about. That can contribute to further misunderstandings so it's better to just answer her simple questions as she moves through her own process.
There is no perfect in parenting, but honest communication and trying to be present for what your child is processing supports their growth and development.
Susan North shared a list of great children’s books with us at our parent coffee hour on this topic, and we would both suggest that if a loved one has died recently, to have some developmentally appropriate children’s books that focus on this topic sitting around so they can choose to have you read to them when they are interested. We are posting her list at the end of this post. Reading together often spurs on some great moments of deeper conversation and connection, and those experiences can offer opportunities to address questions, concerns, or feelings that might be brewing for your child.
Some children process more outwardly than others when it comes to loss or other hard things in life. If your child is obviously struggling emotionally with loss, helping them write a book about this is also a great way to help them process the experience while helping them feel understood. It can be something you write for them that includes pictures of the person or pet, what your child liked doing with them, and most importantly how your child feels after their death. Such as “I miss my grandma” or “I’m sad that my kitty isn’t here anymore.”
This empathy book can be kept where your child can retrieve it, so they can decide when they want to read through it again.
If your child tends to ignore the topic or have little interest in processing the death of a loved one (it seems to never come up for them), you can still have some prompts such as books or pictures in the house and see if that inspires them to process more. However, at the preschool ages, it may also be that they simply aren’t ready to process or that interested in the topic yet. It is okay to wait until they are showing an interest.
Parents often worry about how their own grief or emotions might impact their child. This is a natural concern as we want to protect our children. However, it is also good for children to see that sometimes we are really sad and we may cry or sob when we are sad. We can reassure them that we are just sad and provide the reason in simple terms such as “I’m sad because I miss my mom.” We can also assure them we will feel better soon and that it’s okay to be sad.
If your process is overwhelming and you need additional time to yourself or support, it’s important to seek that and find ways to process some of your grief on your own or where you feel comfortable doing so. Our own emotional well being is paramount in our children’s experience of the world and it’s ideal when we can make space for what we need so that our time with our children is giving them our best, most regulated self.
Books for parents who want to help children with this topic:
Children Grieve Too: Helping Children Cope with Grief (Johnson & Johnson)
Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying (Kelley & Callanan)
The Grieving Child (Fitzgerald & Kubler-Ross)
Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies (Silverman)
35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child (Dougy Center, et al)
And some books for children:
After the Funeral (Winsch et al)
Badger's Parting Gifts (Varley)
Daddy's Promise (Cohen et al)
The Dead Bird (Brown)
Everett Anderson's Goodbye (Clifton)
The Fall fo Freddie the Leaf (Buscaglia)
Gentle Willow (Mills)
I Wish I Could Hold Your Hand (Palmer)
Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children (Mellonie & Ingpen)
Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs (De Paola)
Poppy's Chair (Hesse)
Sad Isn't Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss (Mundy)
Saying Goodbye to Daddy (Vigna & Levine)
Sweet, Sweet Memory (Woodson)
Talking about Death (Grollman)
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Viorst)
Tough Boris (Fox)
Wait Till the Moon is Full (Brown)
What on Earth do You do When Someone Dies? (Romain & Verdick)
When Dinosaurs Die: Guide to Understanding Death (Kransy & Brown)
When Someone Dies (Greenlee)
When Violet Died (Kantrowitz)