Death is one of the hardest concepts to explain to children, especially when you are emotional as well from having to say goodbye to a loved one. Despite the fact that death is all around them, children, especially toddlers, will not understand its permanence and that it happens to everyone and is inevitable.
In saying this, it is important to address your toddler’s questions openly and honestly by giving brief and simple answers. Avoid using euphemisms such as “passed on” or is “sleeping” as this will confuse them further. It is probably better to address concepts honestly using simple terms such as “Her body stopped working” or “She was very old”.
Children will ask lots of “Why?” questions and these need to be acknowledged. It’s also important that you express your own feelings and emotions about the recent loss as your child will be acutely aware that you and others are upset.
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Be prepared for a variety of reactions and often regressions in behaviours and routines (such as bed-wetting, a change in sleep and eating habits, or the way they speak).
Help a toddler express and address their feelings and questions by reading stories about children whose pets or grandparents die, and allowing free play. These are two of the best ways to help the child process what is happening around them.
Reassure the child they are loved by all in the family and that you are there for them. Maintain their daily routines as these provide security for the child. It is also good to help the child memorialise the person, using flowers, drawing pictures or acknowledging how special the person was.
Every child will process death differently. The best thing you can do is be present and journey alongside the child.
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