Do Toddlers & Pre-schoolers Grieve? They Sure Do


BY:Diane Snyder Cowan
CATEGORY: Grief and Loss

Child: When is grandpa coming back?

Mom: I’m sorry sweetie. Grandpa died. He’s not coming back.

Child: Okay, when can we go visit him?

Like adults, children will grieve in their own unique way. There is a wide variability in the understanding of death at a young age. Accepted developmental and grief responses of 3-5 year old children include a lack of time/space concepts, belief of death as temporary and reversible, magical thinking, fear of abandonment, and a need for physical comfort, reassurance and a stable routine.

For younger children, death is experienced as separation. They have limited verbal ability to express themselves. They may fear for their own safety or fear another person will die.  Children ask questions repeatedly and often exhibit regressive behavior. They will need to hear the death story many times.

Children often attune themselves to parent’s or adult’s needs. They may tell you what you want to hear. Feelings may include sadness, anger, anxiety, confusion, and loneliness. However, they often don’t have the verbal skills or vocabulary to articulate their feelings. Children take “breaks” from these big feelings, as they grieve intermittently and in spurts. 

Here are some tips for helping younger children:

  • Use simple, direct language.
  • Don’t “protect your child from the truth” but use good judgment in how you explain the death.
  • Give yourself time to talk and time for your child to ask questions.
  • Let your children show their feelings.  Accept their process – don’t pressure them to “get over it.”
  • Explain that when people die, they don’t eat, sleep or breathe.
  • Reassure your child that you will be there for them.  Ask:  What can I do to help?
  • Keep your child’s life as normal as possible.
  • Find ways to help your child connect to the deceased person:  draw pictures, have pictures available, etc.
  • Share your feelings.
  • Each child’s behavior is the best solution they have for a problem at the moment.
  • Reassure them that they can cope with this and won’t forget their loved one.
  • Remember support, nurturance, and opportunities for creative play and stability are essential building blocks for your child’s development.

All of your emotions are a tribute to the life you shared together.


About Diane Snyder Cowan​
Diane Snyder Cowan is the director of Western Reserve Grief Services.

She oversees the hospice and bereavement programs and expressive therapy. Diane is a Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Administrator and a Board Certified Music Therapist.

She currently serves as the Section Leader for the Bereavement Professional Section of the National Council of Hospice and Palliative Professionals and previously served on the Board of Directors of the Certification Board for Music Therapy.

Diane has presented on music therapy and grief and loss throughout the country and has written for many publications on music therapy and on grief and loss.

She strives to provide support and education to grieving individuals and those who work with them.