Dealing with Death
Toddlers can't comprehend that death means forever. They may appear unmoved when a beloved person or pet passes away. They may continue to anticipate that the person or pet will return, ask again and again when he or she is coming back, and require repeated explanations.
Whereas talking is adults' primary vehicle for expression for coming to terms with difficult emotional issues, toddlers re-enact their confusion and upset in their play. Following a death, it is not unusual for them to replay any rituals to which they have been exposed, holding funerals for a stuffed animal, digging graves in the sandbox, or sending a doll off to heaven.
Many parents try to shield toddlers from the reality of death. This can backfire, precipitating more confusion and insecurity. The fact that no one seems to notice or care that someone special has disappeared may cause toddlers to worry about who might disappear next. Seeing adults cry and grieve helps make death more real to them, communicates that feeling sad is an appropriate response to loss, and enables toddlers to grieve, too.
If it is decided that attending a funeral might be too difficult or traumatic for a toddler, holding some sort of ceremony at home can help make the death more real and enable tots to say good-bye.
It is hard to provide little ones with information that is accurate yet simple enough for them to understand, but that is what they need. However, some common ways to communicate may prove more upsetting than helpful:
“He went bye-bye.” Can trigger fears that parents won't return when they go bye-bye, too.
“Fido went to sleep” or “We put Fido to sleep.” Can instill fear of going to sleep.
“God took him.” Can instill fears that they or a loved will be taken next.
“She was sick so she died.” Can make toddlers worry that they'll die when they get sick.
Instead, try, “Grandma got so very ill that her body couldn't heal. She died, so no one can see her any more. I'm sad, because I will miss her.” Toddlers need to hear explanations many times before they comprehend.