Helping Your Preschooler Cope with Loss

Preschoolers’ understanding of death is in a tricky developmental stage. With infants and toddlers, physical affection and consistency are key; while this is also true with preschoolers, the verbal aspect of communication is now in play, as well.

Developmental Understanding

Children of this age equate death with sleeping or going on a trip. Death is not viewed as permanent, because they do not yet understand the concept of time. They are likely to wonder what the deceased person is doing, and assume that death is a reversible process. They may worry about others they love dying or going away. While you do not need to provide great detail, it is important to gently correct inaccurate assumptions about the permanence of death.

Emotions and Behaviors

Preschoolers will experience a mixture of emotions, often characterized by fear, confusion and insecurity. They are likely to feel sad, angry, worried or guilty. Because they do not yet have the words to express their emotions, it is likely to present as irritability or agitation. You may see their behavior regressing, such as a potty-trained child now having accidents, or having tantrums instead of using their words to describe what they want. Preschoolers often ask repetitive questions in an effort to understand and be reassured, such as asking where the deceased person is or what they are doing, or if other people around them are going to die too. Preschoolers will be more interested in dead things around them, such as bugs or plants, and they are likely to play out death and loss scenes in their play, because this is their main mode of expression. Your child may have intense dreams or nightmares, cry frequently, fight with siblings more, change eating patterns or have more complaints about headaches or stomachaches. Some children will become withdrawn, and others may become clingy.

How to Provide Support

Just as with babies, physical contact like hugging and cuddling is an important form of comfort and reassurance. If your child’s behavior is regressing, allow this to occur for a few weeks or so, meeting your child where he or she is at in the moment to reinforce safety. Encourage your child to play, and recognize this as a safe and comfortable way for him or her to express feelings; involve yourself in their play whenever possible, as it will likely provide you with insight into how they are coping with the loss. For example, if your child’s play repeatedly involves the death of a character and a chaotic and upset family, your child is probably struggling to cope; however, if the family says kind words to one another and hugs and moves forward with a normal routine, your child is displaying greater resilience. If your child asks repetitive questions, continue to answer them, and answer all of their questions with simple and truthful responses (e.g. “Grandma has died, and we will not see her anymore, and we will always love her and miss her.”). Allow your child to cry, and use reflective listening when they express themselves through words or actions (e.g. “You are hitting me and you seem very sad and frustrated. I feel sad too. I would like for us to hug instead of hit. Can we do that right now?”). Try to maintain normal routines as much as possible, and include your child in the mourning process, including attending the funeral, unless he or she displays an aversion to attending.



About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.