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Ages 3-5

Concept of death

Children ages 3-5 rarely understand that death is permanent and that everybody dies eventually. They also may not understand that dead things do not breathe, eat or sleep. They often ask "How?" and "Why?" and they may ask the same questions over and over again. Magical thinking (where a child may strongly believe that their thoughts and actions can cause events or the reversal of events) is expected at this age. This is normal, but be aware that in the event of a loved one's illness, injury or death, your child may feel responsible, thinking it was because of something they did or thought. Assure your child that nothing they did or thought caused this event to happen.

Ways they show stress

  • Clinginess (won't let parent or caregiver out of sight)
  • Regressive behaviors (wanting a pacifier or bottle again, bedwetting, baby talk, thumb sucking, etc.)
  • Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping more or less)
  • Changes in eating habits (eating more or less)
  • Struggling more with transitions (going to daycare, bedtime, etc.)
  • Saying or expressing that they're afraid another caregiver or someone else close to them will die

Ways they cope

  • Crying more frequently
  • Increased temper tantrums/aggression
  • Increased curiosity about dead things (bugs, flowers, etc.)
  • Acting as if the death never happened
  • Grieving in "waves" (may talk about death, then go play as if nothing happened, then start crying)
  • May work through death through play (having cars crash, dolls "die," etc.)

How to talk to them

  • Use clear language (don't be afraid to use terms "death" or "dying")
  • Avoid terms like "passed away," "gone home" or "went to sleep" to avoid confusion between a temporary absence and a permanent one
  • Reassure the child that their words, actions or thoughts did not cause the death

How to provide support

  • Invite questions and answer them honestly and simply by using concrete, age-appropriate terms
  • Be patient with confusion or repetitive questions/requests
  • Provide as much physical comfort as they need
  • Do not punish them for any regressive behavior
  • Allow and encourage use of comfort items (stuffed animal, blanket, etc.)
  • Be open and honest about your own feelings and emotions – this can help children learn how to express their emotions and can give them the words to describe how they're feeling

Activities to help with coping

  • Maintain child's usual routines (their regular bedtimes, bath times, mealtimes, etc.) with consistent and familiar caregivers
  • Draw pictures of the family and/or loved one
  • Assist child in creating a memory box
  • Allow child to participate in memorial services, giving them choices about their involvement in the service
  • Allow child to choose, and keep, a familiar article of clothing or pillowcase of the loved one who died (familiar scents can be comforting)
  • Celebrate holidays with familiar traditions, such as visiting a special place or making a favorite meal
  • Encourage child's participation in memorial activities to honor and remember their loved one

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