A death in the family- whether it be the death of a grandparent or other family member- creates a huge sense of loss for the entire family.
Young children are even less equipped to cope with death and do not necessarily go through the same grieving process as adults do.
Most preschool children do not understand death. Many times the death of a grandparent or the death of a pet is their first experience with death.
Our preschoolers need time, patience and understanding during this time as they learn new coping skills.
It is important as caregivers and teachers, that we develop a relationship with our preschoolers' families. With a trusting relationship formed, parents and teachers can work together as a team in the best interest of our preschoolers to help them deal with the death of a grandparent or other family member.
Preschool aged children do not typically understand that death of a grandparent or any family member is forever. They can not imagine that a person can never be seen again. One of the most difficult things to do is to answer the question, "Why did they die?" The wording we use is very important.
Although as adults, we can comprehend that although someone died suddenly, that they were very sick. As a personal example, my mother died suddenly of a heart attack. She had no diagnosed problem except for a heart murmer found a years before that did not appear to be a problem. She had some angina issues, but was very active and healthy. Her death was a shock to us, however we understood that heart conditions can progress. My children were older at that time (12 and 16) and could understand death and the death of grandparent.
A preschooler may develop anxiety after the death of a grandparent or family member. If they are told "She seemed fine and just died.", they may think they themselves could be very sick and just die or that someone else close to them may be very sick and just die one day.
That is a lot of fear and anxiety for a little kid to try to process. They are very concrete: very black and white in their thinking. It would be best to explain the death of a grandparent or family member in simple but concrete terms such as: "Grandma's heart was very sick." rather than "Grandma's heart was sick but the doctors didn't know."
Many times, especially with the death of a grandparent, children are told that their loved one “has gone away” or “went to sleep and did not wake up”. This causes unrest and anxiety in many children. They may develop separation anxieties when they are dropped off at school or at a family member’s home.
Children may worry that death of a grandparent still living or another family member may happen and that person might go away and not come back. Children do see death as temporary at this age and therefore may see death as “separation” rather than permanent.
They may develop sleeping problems themselves fearing that maybe THEY will fall asleep and never wake up. Older preschoolers may think that their own behavior or action or lack of "good" behavior caused the death (I yelled at her last time; I didn't say I love you, I wouldn't talk to her on the telephone when he called, etc.). It is important that the child be reassured that they were not the cause of the death.
Children respond to death in various ways. Their response may be one of crying, asking questions or with no apparent reaction at all.
As the days go by after the death, and especially as they hear more and more people talk about it during the planning of services, they may begin asking questions or talking about the person more. They may say things like “Is Grandma or Auntie coming over?"
Many children ask if their loved one is in heaven or will ask where they are. How this is handled with the death of a grandparent or any family member will depend upon the family's faith background or belief system. This is a personal choice and it is important for you, as the caregiver, to be aware of what the family believes.
When dealing with the death in the family, it is important for you to talk with the parent(s) or caregiver(s) about what the child knows. You may be the person that the parent comes to for advice on how to break this sad news to the child. Here are some pointers of advice to pass on to families: