The other day, my toddler wanted to know where his daddy’s mommy was. She died ten years ago of cancer, and I was stunned that he was already sensing the absent family connection. How young is too young to explain death? Experts agree that the correct terminology is a good place to start. ‘Passing away’, ‘expiring’ or ‘putting down’ simply don’t compute with the little ones. You don’t want to frighten them or give the impression that this could easily happen to them. ‘She died’ is an honest answer, and as we know, simple concepts and direct phrases are best with toddlers.
The Labor of Love is a website that provides many bereavement resources for children. It states that “you want to save your children from this experience, but it is unlikely they will not sense your grief. They need to know they are not responsible for the event or your sadness. Keeping your explanation simple but honest will remove fear while still letting your child acknowledge their feelings. Be prepared for a variety of responses and do not force your expectations on to them. Very young children may respond more to your grief than the actual event.”
When someone close to you dies, you will be vulnerable and you will have strong emotions. Sharon Cruikshank, a Nova Scotia child psychologist, suggests that you should not try to hide this emotion from your toddler. Sheltering your children will give them a false sense of the world, and they need to know that Mommy and Daddy can feel sad, just like they can feel happy. Death is part of the cycle of life, and it is important for children to see how grief works. Be careful not to share too many emotions with your children, however, and if you find that you are having a difficult time coping, it is important to seek counselling or an outlet for your emotions other than sharing them all with your child. Role playing and make pretend games can also help children express emotions and act things out. See a great place for costumes and creative outlets in our article on dressing up.
There is an amount of fear that is produced with regards to how the death might affect their life. They could be worried about who will take care of them, who will take them camping, or how they will get picked up from preschool. Anticipating these questions by intimately knowing their world will help curb these fears. Reading about loss can also help.
Two good books are When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers (Puffin, 1998) and When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny and Marc Brown (Little Brown & Co., 1998).
BC Bereavement Helpline: 1-877-779-2223 www.bcbereavementhelpline.com
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
Bereaved Famillies of Ontario: www.bereavedfamilies.net
Canuck Place (BC): www.canuckplace.org
For other ideas on role playing with children and activities that can stimulate conversation, see our at-home activities.
-Jill Amery is a mom of two and the CEO of UrbanMommies.