Help your toddler cope with loss

Death or divorce can have a long-lasting effect on your toddler. Here’s how you can help your child cope with loss and grief.

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There’s a commonly held assumption that your toddler can’t fully understand death, and so can’t experience feelings of grief. But even your baby can pick up on your distress, becoming clingy and tearful. And your toddler can be full of questions, asking where the person or pet has gone, or when they’ll be back.

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How your child grieves

Although your toddler may not understand the concept of death or divorce, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel the pangs of the loss.

Your toddler’s ways of expressing his feelings about the change might include:

  • Roaming around the house looking for the missing attachment figure
  • Crying inconsolably
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Developing eating difficulties
  • Developing sleeping difficulties
  • Experiencing physical symptoms of distress such as tummy aches

“Children of this age will also be affected by the emotional state of other important people in their lives,” says Julie Stokes, OBE, of Winston’s Wish, an organisation that helps bereaved children. “When they experience loss in this age range, they’re at their most helpless and are most dependent on adults to help them regain their balance.”

How you can help your toddler cope

Sacha Richardson and Rose Griffiths, producers of the Not Too Young To Grieve DVD and training package (available from the Childhood Bereavement Network), suggest you:

  • Provide adequate information – use concrete words such as ‘died’ rather than ‘lost’ or ‘gone to sleep’, which may encourage your toddler to think someone may be ‘found’ or ‘wake up’.
  • Address fears and anxieties directly – your toddler may be frightened that another family member or he himself will die. Be reassuring but honest.
  • Reassure your toddler that he’s not to blame.
  • Validate your toddler’s feelings: don’t say, “Try to forget about it” or “You’ve got to be brave.”
  • Help with overwhelming feelings – offer opportunities to express difficult emotions through creative activity, stories or play.
  • Involve your toddler in acknowledging and commemorating a death.
  • Where possible, try to continue the normal routine within a stable, loving environment.
  • Give your toddler lots of opportunities to talk about and remember loved ones.

                Death of a parent

                One mum’s experience

                Brenda, 32, lost her husband, Andy, in January 2006 when he died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Their daughter, Anna, was 3 at the time.

                “The first three months were particularly difficult. There were tantrums, as Anna played up over things she previously did without any fuss. I didn’t know how to deal with it or what I could do to help her.

                “We went along to workshops run by Winston’s Wish where the children did activities designed to help them make sense of their feelings and to understand what death means. Meanwhile, I learned about how to deal with difficult questions and understand what our children were feeling.

                “I feel much more confident now talking to Anna about her dad. She still says things that catch me off guard, but when I need advice on how to handle something I call the Winston Wish helpline (0845 203 0405). Our relationship has really changed for the better, and Anna’s behaviour has improved dramatically.”

                The expert’s view

                “A child who’s lost a parent will be anxious that the surviving parent may also go away,” says Sacha Richardson, Director of Children and Young People’s Services at The Laura Centre, a charity that offers counselling for child or childhood bereavement.

                “A bereaved child may ‘shadow’ the surviving parent, not letting them out of their sight, wanting to sleep with them, etc. Underlying this behaviour is the question, spoken or unspoken: ‘Are you going to die, too? And what happens to me if you do?’ Offer reassurance but tell your child who would care for them in the eventuality of your death,” says Sacha.

                Children who have lost a parent may also find separation, such as going to nursery, more difficult: “Suggest something you can do together when you pick your child up – a trip to the park or an ice-cream – to stress that the separation will be short,” says Sacha.

                Death of a sibling

                One mum’s experience

                Sam, 35, gave birth to baby Emily when daughter Rosie was 4. Emily died at 17 hours old from rhesus disease.

                “Emily was born at home, so for a few hours we were all together as a happy family. The next day, Rosie couldn’t understand where her baby sister had gone, so we took her to see Emily in the chapel of rest. Rosie had so many questions and for a while she pretended to have an imaginary baby.

                “I joined my local SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society) and it was helpful to talk to other parents, who reassured me that what she was going through was normal, and to discuss ways to support her. We tried to keep the same routines going, but of course we were grieving, too. Sometimes that made me overprotective, while at other times I felt depressed and hardly able to cope with the normal everyday demands of a toddler.

                “Sadly we lost another baby, Oliver, three years later, and we have photos of Emily and Oliver in the house, visit their graves regularly and take flowers.

                “We now have two more little girls, Ellena, 2, and Freya, 9 months, to whom Rosie is a doting and much-loved older sister. Their arrival has healed a lot of the pain, but I know that losing siblings so young has definitely affected Rosie’s childhood.”

                The expert’s view

                “Bereaved children often experience guilt about being alive when their sibling has died,” says Julie Stokes, OBE, of Winston’s Wish. “Children, especially young ones, benefit from being reassured repeatedly that their sibling’s death was not their fault.

                “Parents will be overwhelmed with grief, but surviving children need to know their parents still love them and are there for them. Talk about the child who died and share memories, but try not to idealise them or make comparisons.

                Dealing with separation

                One mum’s experience

                Sarah, 35, separated from her husband, Jim, two years ago when her daughter, Theresa, was 22 months and son, Luke, was 6 months.

                “The children were aware of the upheaval – you can’t and shouldn’t shield them from everything – but Jim and I have worked hard to rebuild a relationship based on being parents rather than partners, to ensure the children feel secure. They see Jim regularly, and we have a set routine so they know exactly when they’ll be spending time with each of us.

                “I tell them we have a different sort of family, but we all love each other and that’s what really counts. We didn’t plan it this way, but the children have come through pretty unscathed and things are really good.”

                The expert’s view

                “A young child may not show his distress by saying, ‘I miss you’, but by becoming willful, disobedient, clingy or demanding,” says Suzie Hayman from Parentline Plus and author of Moving On: Breaking Up Without Breaking Down (Ebury).

                “The important thing to remember is that bad behaviour is about bad feelings. Children need repeated reassurance that both parents love them and as much contact with the non-resident parent as possible.”

                Suzie suggests regular, even daily, contact if possible. “Perhaps the non-resident parent can do bathtime or the nursery run. Give the child opportunities to express how he feels by drawing a sad picture or kicking a cushion. It’s how the separation is handled, not the separation itself, that will have the most impact.”

                Death of a pet

                One mum’s experience

                Gaby, 30, is mum to Tiffany and Luke, who were 6 and 4 when their beloved family dog, Jay, died, aged 11.

                “The children knew that Jay wasn’t well, but it would have broken Luke’s heart to see him being put down – he’s a very sensitive boy. I explained what had happened and that Jay had gone to dog heaven. We kept Jay’s collar and often look at pictures and talk about happy times. My daughter bottled it all up, but I think crying helped Luke get it out of his system. He still talks about Jay two years later and says, ‘I miss her.’”

                The expert view

                “If a pet is ill, don’t say, ‘He’ll get better, don’t worry.’ Instead, prepare your child for the possibility that his companion may die. If the pet needs to be put down, explain why and how this is done and ask the child if he wants to be present,” says JoAnn Tuzeo-Jarolmen, psychotherapist and author of When A Family Pet Dies: A Guide To Dealing With Children’s Loss.

                Allow your child to say goodbye and commemorate the death if he wants to. There is a range of home-burial kits for pets available.

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                Don’t try to ‘replace’ a lost pet with a new one: “If you get the new pet too soon, your children won’t have finished grieving,” explains JoAnn.

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