Younger Children and Grief

Understanding the Grieving Infant and Preschooler

The following was taken directly from a booklet which was written and published by The Dougy Center (www.dougy.org) in Portland, OR. The highly-recommended booklet is titled “Helping Children Cope with Death.”

Many adults underestimate the abilities of young children to realize something is wrong, and to understand what death is. As Alan Wolfelt states, “Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve.” A grieving infant may experience regressive behaviors including changes in sleeping and eating patterns, clinging, or irritability.

Preschoolers often understand more than adults realize. Time after time, a surviving parent has brought a preschooler to The Dougy Center, telling the staff member that the child didn’t really know what had happened. Time after time, the child, upstairs in a play room, has told the story: “My mom got shot by a bad man and they can’t find him. She’s never coming back.” Or, “My daddy’s heart got sick and broke and then he died. I miss him.” Children are intuitive. They feel the trust in the atmosphere. They know something big has happened because the adults are acting different.

Adults often talk around young children, believing they can’t understand what is being said, or that they’re too young to “get it.” A grandmother whose husband was dying talked with her 32-year-old son in the car as her 3-year-old grandchild sat in the back seat. They spelled some words so the child wouldn’t “catch-on.” When they arrived to visit grampa, the child ran into the house, jumped on grampa’s lap and said, “Grampa—are you gonna be here for my birfday, or are you gonna be D-E-D?” Preschoolers have taught us they want and need to be told the truth, to be informed, and to have their questions answered truthfully.

It is important to understand that young children need to be included in the process when a family member is dying or has died. Attempting to “protect” them from this information will backfire in the long run, as they sense something is wrong yet no one will share with them what it is.

Children need clear, honest explanations about death. Although young children do not usually understand the finality of death, they can learn over time what it means. A 3-year-old, hours after being told her father is dead, asks her mother, “Is Daddy going to be dead all day?” When told his mother has gone to heaven, a 4-year-old wonders aloud, “When will she be back?”

Explaining death to young children is most helpful when it’s simple and concrete. Explaining the finality of death to young children may include the basic, bodily functions: “When your mom is dead she can’t eat, see, hear, sing, walk around, poop, laugh or cry. A dead person doesn’t sleep, get hungry, or cold, or scared.”

It may help if the child has a prior experience with death, like the death of a pet, or finding a dead bird on the lawn. Rather than hastily replacing the pet, or scooping up and tossing the bird, the parent can use these experiences as instructive and preparatory for children to understand death. Flushing a dead fish down the toilet may make a young child fear the “potty,” or believe that’s what happens to anyone who dies. Rushing out to replace a deceased dog may encourage the sense that the loved one can be easily replaced, and suggests that its uniqueness did not matter. Allowing a young child to experience the death of pets or other animals invites the curiosity of the child to be met with helpful explanations and information that can be applied when a more significant death occurs.

Young children may be repetitive in their questions. It is common for little children to ask questions repetitively about the death. They learn about their world by having questions answered again and again. The same way that they learn 1 plus 1 equals 2, they learn about death through asking and getting answers.

Young children learn by repetition and therefore need to ask the same questions over and over, or to hear the story of what happened again and again, much as they like to be read a familiar bedtime story. This can be difficult, if not exasperating, for the parent grieving the death of a spouse or child.

A young mother called The Dougy Center concerned about her 4-year-old’s morning ritual of wanting to watch home videos of the older brother who had died. She was concerned that this repetitive video watching would be harmful for her son. Also, it was difficult for her to see or to hear the video each morning. Following the video the boy would ask similar questions, but after hearing the mother’s answers he would go about his play like any normal 4-year-old. Months later the child gradually discontinued his morning video watching and asking the same questions.

Young children don’t necessarily have the tools to translate what they’re feeling and thinking into language, although some are remarkably verbal and clear about what has happened.

After a death, a common fear of children is that others will die. Because the death of someone close to a child upsets the sense of safety, security, and control most children have, it is common for them to experience fear, insecurity and uncertainty. Some children become very possessive of a surviving parent, afraid to let him or her out of their sight, terrified that he or she too will die or disappear. Some take the opposite behavior, seeming to not care about the parent, withdrawing from relationships with adults or other children. They may be fearful that anyone they get close to will die.

Some children are eager to help the surviving parent find a replacement for the deceased parent. A 5-year-old standing in the grocery line with his mother remarked to the male teller, “My dad died. Will you marry my mom?” Other children resent the time their surviving parent spends alone or without them; some children will do all they can to sabotage a potential relationship their parent might try to develop.


Letter to Grownups

Dear Grownups

Because I’m little, I don’t understand all the things that big people know about living and being dead. But I do know that things aren’t like they were before someone died, and I want them to be like that again. Can you help me understand all this better?

Because I’m little, I feel and think about all sorts of strange things that I don’t know how to tell you about. But I do know that if you show me you care, and hug me and just be with me, the tears and words will come out like they’re supposed to and make it better.

Because I’m little, lots of times I hear big people talking, saying grownup things in words I don’t know yet, and sometimes when I walk by, they even stop talking. But I do know that the stuff my mind imagines when you don’t talk to me about bad things happening are probably even scarier than the bad things you won’t tell me about.

Because I’m little, I get really confused when big people smile at me when they look really sad, and when they tell me they’re okay, and I know they’re not. And I really, really know I like it lots better when you tell me why the things I see and feel are happening, and don’t tell me they’re not.

— A Grieving Child


Children, Grief and Play

By Jill Jacox Tan, M. Div.

In my work with grieving children, I have learned that children often grieve very differently than adults. They usually express their grief and deepest feelings through play. While we often assume that a grieving child is just going through their usual day in the usually way, if we play close attention, we will see how their feelings of sorrow, fear and deep anguish come out in their play.

During a recent trip to The Dougy Center, a grief center for children and their families in Portland, Oregon,  a story about a five-year-old boy was told to us. The boy’s mother had died of cancer, and he and his family were going to a grief support group at The Dougy Center. Every afternoon, after opening circle, the boy would go straight to the Brio train table which was set up in one of the rooms. He wanted to play with the trains, and only the trains. Since his mother had died of an illness, rather than a train accident, nobody quite understood why the boy was fixated on trains. For a long time, this was his routine and he didn’t waiver from it. One day, rather than staying at the train table to play, he simply went to the table, grabbed one of the small trains, and carried it around in his pocket while he did other things. This became his new routine until the day came when he could share what was going on inside of him. This sweet five-year-old boy and his mommy spent every afternoon going to the train track behind their house to watch the passing train. The child knew what he needed to do to deal with his grief, and he worked very hard in those weeks and months at The Dougy Center.

I share this story to say that if we, as grief workers, or as a grieving parent or caregiver, have a good supply of “stuff” for our kids to play with, they will find what they need and do their work. Like the five-year-old in the story above, we may some day discover what they are thinking about or feeling, or we may not. We may never know exactly what is going on inside of them. But we can be confident that, if we give them the time and space and supplies, they will do their work.

Supplies for Children’s Grief Work

Following is a sample list of supplies, any or all of which would be helpful to have available for your child. These supplies could be made available to your child either in your home, or at a place where your child is comfortable and free to work and create.

  • Paper (lots of it!): Colored paper, white construction paper, big easel paper, standard colored paper, cardboard, strips of paper, etc.
  • Pens: Colored markers, smelly markers or various sizes and ink pens
  • Pencils: Colored pencils and regular pencils
  • Stamps (the kind that come in the mail, like Easter Seals stamps)
  • Stickers & envelopes, old cards: Various shapes and sizes for playing post office and mail
  • Paints: Tempura for the big paper and water colors, finger paints if you dare
  • Crayons and craypas (pastels for kids that make very bold colors)
  • Magazines for cutting out pictures and making collages
  • Beads & buttons with string and or cording
  • Dollhouse with families (Lakeshore Learning Materials—www.lakeshorelearning.com—has many different sets)
  • Large chalkboard with white and or colored chalk
  • White board with dry erase markers
  • Tape, scissors, staples, glue, paper clips
  • Glitter glue and colored glitter
  • Punching bag
  • Soft pillows and stuffed animals or other cuddly toys and blankets
  • Bean bags
  • Nerf games: e.g., basketball, darts, etc.
  • Balls: All shapes and sizes
  • Blank journals: for making books, writing letters, writing stories, etc.
  • Grief journals: there are many specifically for grieving children and teens. These journals have space for the child or teen to talk about the funeral, feelings, etc.
  • Animals: Dinosaurs, horses, etc.
  • Animal families: Lakeshore Learning Materials (www.lakeshorelearning.com) has various sets of adult and baby animals – farm animals, jungle animals, forest animals and dinosaurs. They come in very tiny and larger sizes.
  • Play-Doh® (see recipe below): This is a wonderful medium for children. Much can be talked about and worked out with Play-Doh and either animal or people sets.

Cooked Play-Doh®

(Children love to help make this recipe.)

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup salt
  • 4 tsp. cream of tartar

Mix above ingredients in a heavy bottomed cooking pot.

  • 2 cups water
  • 2 Tblsp. Oil
  • Food coloring or liquid water color paint (for color)
  • Peppermint or almond extract (optional)
  • Mix the above wet ingredients together

Add the wet ingredients to the dry.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the Play-Doh holds together in a ball, pulls away from the sides and is no longer shiny or feeling sticky to the touch.

Turn out the Play-Doh onto a smooth dry surface until it is cool enough to handle. Kneed the Play-Doh until smooth (this is the part that kids and adults lovewarm, smooth Play-Doh).

Store in an airtight container. It will keep for 2 4 weeks.

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