Toddlers and young school-age children don’t understand the permanence of death – they can’t differentiate between someone being dead or away on a trip, for example. While they may understand that biological processes have stopped, they may also assume it’s temporary or reversible. They may also wonder what will happen if their other parent dies and engage in magical thinking (that they caused their mother’s death, that they can bring her back, etc.) Their grief can take many forms, including regressive behaviour (bed wetting, thumb sucking), repetitive questions, intense dreams, pretending the death never happened, physical complaints, an interest in dead things, or withdrawal.
How to Help
Allow the regressive behaviour and take care of them as if they are younger than they are – they are unconsciously seeking the comfort of an earlier time. Offer lots of cuddles and physical contact, and stick with routines as much as you can. Answer their questions simply and honestly as often as they ask, without expressing frustration. Include them in mourning and family rituals. Let them cry and give them a safe place to express their feelings, but also encourage them to play and have fun. Reassure them that there will always be someone to take care of them.