Helping My Preschooler Cope With Grief and Loss

While visiting family during Christmas break, we decided to grab a bite to eat. I saw a fountain I thought would be a great distraction for my impatient 4-and-a-half-year-old while we waited to be seated. As I handed my son pennies to toss into the water, I had no idea he would have such a powerful wish.

“I wish that Mommy never dies.”

His words took my breath away. I just stood there with a handful of copper pennies I thought would be meant for garbage trucks, police cars and LEGO sets.

Our family had experienced four deaths in a short 10-month period, and it appeared my son was realizing the permanence of these deaths.

As a child-life specialist who works to support children through their grief, I was witnessing my own son’s emotional torture of understanding death, coping with his fear of loss and trying to understand why his French Bulldog couldn’t come back from heaven.

When we returned home from vacation, his grief began to manifest and triggered some separation anxiety. His transition back to school was challenging, bedtime was a struggle and I noticed he was constantly following me around the house.

One night before bed, he asked me if I was going to die. Part of me wanted to say, “No, never. Don’t think like that.” However, I took the alternative route of responding with empathy, focusing on love and him not wanting me to leave. I wanted him to know I understood his fears and was giving him permission to express them.

Our conversation continued with lots of reassurance on how I will hopefully live to be 100. We ended our talk with lots of giggles, cuddles and reminders that no matter where we are in the world, we are always connected.

After I put him to bed, I had a plan in my head to help him work through his grief and cope with the separation issues. So this is what I did:

Lots of validation — If he begins to get slightly upset about going to school, I talk through the feelings he has expressed to validate them.“You miss me so much when you are at school. I miss you too.”

Normalize his emotions — I try follow up the validation with normalizing the thoughts and feelings he expresses. “It is so hard to go back to school after such a long break. Lots of kids feel the same way.”

One-on-one time — I make sure to spend some extra time with him each day. We sit and eat lunch together, and I hold his hand and carry him around while I smother him with kisses.

Play — I get on the floor and play with him using a child-centered approach. I let him lead the play, choose the activity and give him as much control as possible. I narrate what he is doing, name feelings and just stay present in the moment. It is a nice way for us to both feel reconnected.

Communication — I don’t want his teachers to become frustrated with him as he struggles to separate from me at school. I am honest about the deaths and let them know we are helping him work through it.

Activities — I provide him with a variety of activities that promote self-expression, coping strategies and memory-making around the losses.

The other day he was getting upset about going to school, so I introduced him to an activity about staying connected.

First I read him the beautifully written and illustrated children’s book, “The Invisible String,” by Patrice Karst. It instantly resonated with him. Then, using construction paper, markers and lanyard, I helped him create his own invisible string.

He had lots of choices during the activity of what color paper and markers, freedom to draw whatever he liked, and the length of the string (which ended up being eight feet). He then practiced pulling on the string, as I acted out the tug from my heart. His face lit up with a smile, and I felt like he was beginning to feel a bit more safe.

Grief is hard to cope with, but if you allow kids to feel and express the unpleasant emotions through empathy, play and patience, it will hopefully help them develop healthy coping strategies and resilience.

Follow this journey on Child Life Mommy.

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