How do you explain complex topics about life, death, spirituality and physical health all at once to a preschooler? It’s even hard for adults to process how someone can be here one day and gone the next, but for preschoolers, it’s especially confusing. Whether they’ve lost a pet, neighbor or loved one, loss and grief effects preschoolers emotionally and behaviorally.
Preschoolers don’t understand the finality of death. A child who has experienced the loss of a grandfather might say, “He’s gone to Heaven. He’ll be home next week.” Little kids just don’t grasp the finality of death. Often, they don’t appear to be sad after losing a loved one because they fully expect the person to return. As a result, they might ask questions such as “Will Grandpa be at my birthday party?” as they try to make sense of the loss.
Depending on the intensity of the grief and loss, preschoolers can revert to behaviors that they outgrew. He might begin sucking his thumb, wetting the bed or even having daytime wetting accidents after the death of a loved one. He also might use “baby talk” and demand more help with the tasks he previously mastered. He might seek more attention and affection and might ask for some of his baby items back, such as a pacifier or baby blanket.
Acting Out Feelings
Because preschoolers aren’t much for verbalizing their feelings, they usually act them out in their play. After a loss, a child might pretend to be dead and then come back to life over and over. He might become more irritable in nature and his play might be more aggressive. He might portray puppets and action figures violently fighting and threatening to kill one another. All of these behaviors help a child try to make sense of death.
Preschoolers assume the world revolves around them. So when someone dies, they might think they had something to do with it. A child could blame himself and think, “Grandpa died because I was bad.” It’s also common for kids to have magical thinking, where they believe they have the power to bring a person back to life. In a world where cartoon characters die and come back to life several times during a single episode, kids presume that death is curable.