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Help Your Preschool Child Cope with Death

Sometimes young children experience the death of someone close to them. This person could be a friend or a family member. The death could be the result of a serious illness or even an accident.

Many different providers can help your child deal with the death of a friend or family member. They include:

  • Child life specialists
  • Grief counselors
  • Chaplains
  • Social workers
  • Psychologists

You can also take steps to help your preschool aged child understand and cope with the death of a family member or friend.

Understanding death

Helping your preschooler understand death will help them cope better. If you do not explain death to them in simple, honest terms, they will be left to imagine what has happened. These thoughts can often be scarier than the truth.

Your preschool child may not understand the concept of “forever.” They may think that death will only last for a short time. Or they may think that people who die return soon.

Your child might also believe that he has done something to cause the death.

How to talk about death

Use concrete words such as “dead” and clear wording, like “her body stopped working.”

Avoid phrases such as “passed away,” “gone to sleep,” or “taken to a better place.” They are hard for a preschooler to understand.

Remember to include your religious beliefs when you discuss death with your child.

However, avoid saying that God “took someone to be with him.” Your child may begin to fear that God will take them away, too.

Possible questions

Your child might have many questions about death. Be sure to answer those questions honestly, using words they can understand.

Here are some questions your preschool child might ask when a family member or friend has died.

What does “dead” mean?

Use clear language when answering this question.

“Dead” means that the person’s body stopped working. Their heart stopped beating, and they do not breathe anymore. They do not see, hear, feel, or move anymore.

Is death like going to sleep?

Keep in mind: Children who are told that death is like sleeping may develop fears of going to sleep and not waking up.

Death is different from sleeping. When you are sleeping, your body still works. You still breathe, your heart beats, and your body can still move. When a person dies, their body stops working.

Are they hungry? Are they cold?

Young children often do not understand that a dead person no longer has feelings.

You may need to tell your child many times that the person’s body does not work anymore, and that he does not breathe, move, talk, or feel anymore.

Will they come back?

“Forever” is a hard concept for a young child to understand.

You may need to tell your child many times that the person will not ever come back.

Did I do something bad to cause the death? Did I think something that caused it?

It is very common for preschool children to feel at fault for death. Your child may have had a fight with the person who died and may have wished that person would go away before the death.

It is important to reassure your child that nothing he could have said or done caused the person to die. Thoughts and words cannot make people die.

Common reactions

Every child responds to death in their own way. These are some of the most common preschool reactions:

  • Acting irritable
  • Regressing to an earlier age
  • Showing fear of separating
  • Having increased fears or nightmares
  • Talking about death over and over
  • Showing little to no concern at times and returning to play
Preschooler reacting to death

Preschoolers can react in many ways to death and the reactions can change often.

Ways to help

  • Be patient and repeat details about how death is “forever.”
  • Make sure your child knows that nothing they said or did could have caused or prevented the death.
  • Use straight forward, concrete words to talk about death. Avoid phrases such as “passed away.”
  • Be honest and answer your child’s questions.
  • Set limits for behaviors that are not acceptable. But know that your child might act younger than their age while they are trying to cope with this death.
  • Give your child chances to play and draw about the death.
  • Read books about death and loss that fit your child’s age. You can find these books at your local library or bookstore.
  • Model healthy grieving. It is OK for your child to see you cry.

Key Points

  • Your preschool aged child will cope better with death if you explain it to them clearly.
  • Use clear wording such as “died” instead of phrases like “passed away” or “went to sleep.”
  • Answer questions clearly and honestly.
  • Respond in an age-appropriate manner.
  • Have patience as your child works through grief.

Reviewed: September 2022