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How to Explain Death to Preschoolers

When a client unfortunately passes away, the life insurance salesman often helps expedite the payment to the beneficiary. We deal with the grieving widow or widower, and offer the best comfort we can as one adult to another.

Sometimes we must engage the young children who have suffered the loss of their mom or dad. These are very tough encounters because we feel so sorry for them. Communicating is also made difficult because preschoolers have their owns ways of expressing their pain; it is often hard to understand and relate to them.

Social worker Amy Morin has fine insights in The Bump about the effect of death on kids. She can help professionals, friends, and just about anyone who works with families in bereavement.

Here is a summary of her points, along with my comments.


Amy: 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.

Steve: in religious homes, this might be easier because the child could have some notion of “the hereafter”. I wonder what concepts for “life after death” are in the minds of kids with no religious background.

Regressive Behaviors

Amy: 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.

Steve: I actually have seen this in older kids as well. Teens can have their own types of “temper tantrums” when feeling great emotional pain.

Magical Thinking

Amy: 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.”

Steve: from an objective point of view, this notion can appear absurd. Of course the child’s misbehavior had nothing to do with the death of his parent! Yet I have seen people retain such guilt well into their adult years.

Have you had any experience talking with preschoolers about death? What approach worked for you? What didn’t?