Published On: Thu, Oct 10th, 2013

How To Help Preschoolers Cope With Death

How To Help Preschoolers Cope With DeathDeath is a reality. People die. Pets die. Animals and birds die. Plants and flowers die. In the Western world, we tend to deny the reality of death to some extent . Some people believe that if we discuss it briefly, avoid seeing it, mourn it quietly and recover from it quickly, it will not linger and spread. After all, life does go on doesn’t it?!

Others sugar coat it, especially around young children “Oh Harry the hamster went to heaven” instead of “Harry was sick and his heart stopped beating so he died”. We want to keep their world as innocent and carefree as possible (and to some extent this is their childhood right). However, children are exposed to images on national television that depict war, violence, illness and suffering. Even if they don’t watch television, the world around them is evidence enough of sickness, sadness and separation.

Sometimes explaining death to young children can be difficult but to deny talking about it can lead to unnecessary fear and anxiety. So, if we are not going to deny talking about death, how do you handle it when dealing with young children? How do we respond to children’s genuine concerns about death? What do children really want to know when they ask the following questions? What will happen if I get very sick like Grandpa? If Harry dies of a heart attack could Daddy die too? “Will Mummy die soon? All of these questions can be translated into a fear of separation from their loved ones and a genuine anxiety about their future. All of them lead to the fear of abandonment and raise the question as to who would take care of them.


  • Avoid generalising death and sickness as belonging only to the elderly…”Mummy won’t get sick and die like Grandpa because she is young” rather say ” Grandpa lived a long time but some people don’t . ….I expect to live a long time like Grandpa but if I did die or got very sick, Daddy….. Uncle John….. Grandma, would take care of you”.
  • Explanations likely to facilitate children’s understanding of death, and dying should be simple, direct and provide factual information. It is important to communicate that death itself does not hurt. We are crying because we hurt inside. We are sad because we have lost a relationship. Children being as close to their own feelings can readily accept these feelings in adults when expressed in terms they can understand. The necessity to be frank and open with children helps parents face their own feelings more honestly and work through their own grief in a healthy way..
  • When first approaching the subject of death with your child, it is important to find out what their perception of death already is. You may be surprised to find they are already forming an opinion on the topic. Ask them; What does DEAD mean? What do you think happens when we die? Do you know what a funeral is? What do you think will happen today?
  • Some parents choose not to take their child to a funeral and although this is a personal choice, research does suggests that saying ‘goodbye’ is an important healing process and funerals can facilitate that well. Explain to your child the purpose of a funeral and provide them with the opportunity to farewell the loved one in some other way if they do not attend the funeral.
  • Preschool children do not understand that when you are dead you no longer eat or sleep. They may assume that all those bodily functions happen elsewhere (heaven). It’s important at this point to avoid using explanations like “fallen asleep.”
  • The death of a gold fish can be as traumatic (sometimes more so) than the death of a Grandparent to a young child. Accept and validate their feelings.
  • Grief is difficult for young children to handle. While they are coming to terms with death, they will often focus their attention on something else such as playing games, watching television, painting, drawing, dramatic play etc. This helps them manage the grieving process and relives some of the sadness involved in he grieving process.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question or have doubts as to how to explain a certain death, it is better to say “I don’t know” than to try and give a dishonest of half truth.
  • The questions children ask may be asked at inappropriate times and you may not be able to answer them or you may find it too painful to answer them yourself. Make a note to answer those questions at a later stage and tell your child that you find it too painful to talk about it just now. Children process grief in small stages and sometimes adults do too.
  • Explain that different people believe different things about what happens when we die. Be confident however to say what you as a family believe. A religious view of death can be comforting to children too but the messages need to be simple and consistent. telling a child “God is happy because your sister is in heaven now” when everyone around is crying, showing pain and sadness can send conflicting messages to your child. Avoid the use of “It was Gods Will” when talking to young children about death. Remember the rule Keep It Simple (KIS).

Eleni McDermott is a writer and an early childhood educator. She is the author of three children’s picture books Tears in a Treasure Box, Cranky Granny and her latest release Alexander’s Extraordinary Gift (available from Her books reflect the attachments children have the significant people in their lives. She has also written adult resource books and child development articles on a range of topics and presents workshops and seminars to parents and teachers. Eleni is also the Assistant principal at an International school in China. To view her books, as well as other articles on child development visit read more about death and how to help children cope visit

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