Explaining Death

How to explain a loved one's death to a toddler.

By Linda Bream, psychologist

Q: My father recently passed away, and my 2.5-year-old daughter has been asking for Papa ever since. I was advised to tell her that he was on a long trip and we wouldn’t be seeing him for a long time, but that we would see him again. Am I doing my child an injustice by not telling her the truth about her grandfather?

A: At 2.5, your child has no real concept of death, so she won’t understand that her grandpa is gone forever. Try giving her minimal information without telling her something untrue.

Explain that he has died and she won’t be able to see him anymore. When she asks about him, look at a photo together and share a memory about him. Then gently move her on to a new train of thought by playing or reading a story.

While young children don’t understand death, they do pick up on your emotions. Your daughter may be sensing your sadness or anxiety surrounding the loss of your father. Keep her routine the same, give her extra bedtime cuddles, and reassure her that you love her and she is safe.

Children go through predictable stages about understanding death. When she’s older, your daughter will likely ask about her grandpa again. Most hospice services and some funeral homes have information to help children cope with loss. Feeling reluctant to talk about the permanence of death is natural; we want to protect our children from pain. Your love, guidance and reassurance are what your daughter needs most.

This article was originally published on May 11, 2011

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