Young children need help and support to understand death and other losses. Helping a young child deal with loss and grief is one of the most difficult responsibilities a child care provider may face. Young children do feel grief when they lose someone or something special to them. Most adults recognize that children experience grief at the death of a loved one -- including a family member, a friend, or even a pet.
But children also experience grief during other kinds of losses. Children may grieve the loss of regular contact with a non-custodial parent after a divorce, or may feel grief when separated from a regular child care provider after their family moves to a new city. Grieving the loss of a familiar home or child care environment because of a disaster is also common. Children in military families may go through a grief process when a parent is deployed, because they are losing regular contact and familiar routines while the parent is gone. These kinds of losses are especially hard for young children to understand, because they do not have an adult's knowledge of time or permanence.
The support of a trusted child care provider can provide stability for young children during times of grief and loss. Children try to make sense out of loss by following the cues of the adults around them. Even if they don't really understand what has happened, they feel the stress of a big change in their lives. Having someone they know will be there for them can help children manage their grief.
Children and adults go through a variety of feelings when grieving a death or other loss. It's important to recognize that children understand death and cope with grief differently than adults do, and their understanding of death changes as they get older. Below are some ways to help children of different ages cope with grief.
Very young children do not really understand death, but they may recognize that something in their lives has changed, or that someone important to them is no longer around. Infants and toddlers are also sensitive to the stress that the adults around them are feeling, and they may be upset because their regular routine has been disrupted. They may not be able to express their feelings because they have limited language skills and do not yet have the language to identify feelings.
One of the best ways child care providers can help infants and toddlers deal with a loss is to keep their daily routines as normal as possible while they are in child care. Be sure the child has a trusted child care provider to take care of him, especially during the first days and weeks. Be sensitive to the child's cues, and respond when he needs you. Keep eating and sleeping routines the same. You may need to explain the loss to toddlers in simple words, such as, "Grandma died," or, "A fire burned our regular room." Don't be surprised if infants and toddlers do not act sad. This does not mean they didn't care about the person who died.
Most 3- to 5-year-olds have the thinking skills they need for a very basic understanding of death. They may recognize that a person's body stops working when that person dies, and they may know that a person who is dead can’t talk or eat or sleep any more. But most preschoolers do not yet realize that death is permanent.
Don't be surprised if preschoolers ask many questions about death and other losses. They may need to be told over and over again that the person or pet has died, or that the parent has gone away and won't be back for a long time, because they don't realize that some changes are long-lasting or permanent. Preschoolers do not understand yet that all living things die, so they may ask whether certain types of people or animals will die. Preschool children may ask a lot of questions that seem inappropriate or uncomfortable for many adults. Try to be sensitive but truthful when answering their questions, and be willing to talk about the loss over and over if the child asks.
Remember that preschoolers still understand the world in concrete terms, so you need to think carefully about the words you use to explain a death. Never talk about death as "sleeping." Preschoolers may think the deceased person or pet will wake up, or may be scared to go to sleep because they fear that they will not wake up again. Be careful when telling preschoolers that a person died because she was sick. Young children get sick all the time, and might be afraid that they are going to die every time they get a sniffle or stomach ache. Preschoolers tend to be self-centered in their thinking, and may assume that they caused a death or natural disaster. Be sure to clarify that it's not their fault, and that they could not have done anything to prevent it.
Children in early elementary school begin to understand four basic facts about death:
School-age children who experience the death of a loved one or pet may suddenly start talking about their own death or say that they are scared of dying. They are able to talk about their emotions and understand that death happens to everyone. Encourage school-age children to talk about their fears and worries. Help them identify ways they can keep themselves healthy and safe. Let them know that it's normal to be sad or angry when a person or a pet dies. Help them identify their feelings and be there to listen when they need support.
Although death and loss are not subjects people like to talk about, it is very important to help children understand and deal with the losses in their lives. Dealing with death or other losses in a healthy way helps children recover emotionally, and gives them the skills they need to deal with later losses in healthy, productive ways. Providing a safe, secure environment, predictable routines, and a supportive listening ear can help children process their feelings, deal with the major change in their lives, and move toward acceptance of the loss.
To learn more about helping children deal with emotions, and for information on military families in child care, take a look at the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles: