Since March 2020 the world has been facing the ‘new normal’ amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Everybody knew it was bad, people got infected, had to isolate for 14 days at first (later only 10 days), some people only lost their tasting and smelling senses, while others got really ill, and only a small number of people were affected by death due to Covid. If only it stayed that way…

By the end of November South Africa experienced a second wave of infections, a new strain of the Covid virus broke loose, and infection numbers climbed exponentially. With the ever growing number of infections, came an ever growing number of hospitalizations and inevitably, deaths. It is seldom I speak to someone now who hasn’t had a friend, colleague, family member or acquaintance lose a life due to Covid. And if we as adults are experiencing the great losses that Covid brings, so does our children.

Children are very attuned to our emotional state. They very quickly pick up when something is not right, or mom and dad are experiencing some emotional difficulties.

How then do you talk to your child about death?

Death is one of the hardest topics to talk to your child about, especially when you are dealing with grief yourself. It is an inevitable topic that you won’t be able to dismiss, especially not during a pandemic where illness & death numbers are all around. It is an inescapable part of life, which your child will want to understand. Toddlers know about death from an early age, they hear about it, see it on television & get confronted by death of insects, pets and sometimes loved ones. Although they might have an idea about death, they are still too young to really understand certain concepts of death. They do not understand that death is permanent and that it happens to everybody at some point in time. Toddlers won’t really grasp what causes death, where the people go when they die and they might believe that death won’t happen to him.

A child’s reaction to death often will differ, from extreme sobbing and feelings of emotional distress, to not really being bothered at all and asking when the next movie will start. A lot of factors might influence your child’s reaction and how your child will deal with the loss of a family member. The relationship of the deceased to the child being the greatest factor, how the loss affects routine, stability in the home etc. This is also the same for your child’s grieving process. Some children might only start to grieve when they feel emotionally safe enough to do so.

How then, can you as parent talk to your child about death?

  1. Do not dodge the question

Children will ask you questions that might be very hard to answer at times. But it is important to remember that when a child asks a question, they are searching for an answer to help them understand concepts their little mind is trying to understand. Thus, ignoring the topic or dodging a question, might leave your child making assumptions, or make them feel as if their question is not relevant.

  1. Give simple, brief answers

Offer your child a clear, age appropriate, sort answer to the questions he asks. It is not necessary to go into detail about circumstances around the death or deceased, just an honest (age appropriate) answer to what your child asks. For example, should your child ask where grandma is now, you can answer that grandma passed away, or died and is in heaven now. You do not have to explain heaven, if your child does not ask about it further.

  1. Make it visual

Again, stay at an age appropriate level with your child. Use children’s books and stories to help explain death, and how people react to death. Children’s story books are a great way to ‘normalize’ the phenomenon and visually demonstrate to children how people react & that in the end you can overcome the sadness. Make a memory box of the deceased together, with items that your child deems important. When the sadness or longing becomes too much, go through the memory box together and remember all the good times you had with your loved one.

  1. Remember your child is imitating you!

This point might be the most difficult point for parents. When facing your own sorrow and grief, to remember that your child looks to you, especially in times of uncertainty and distress, on how to react. When they see you sobbing and depressed, they will follow your reaction. With this I am not implying that you are not allowed to cry in front of your child, it is necessary for your toddler to see people react to trauma and grief. Explain that you are crying because you are sad, and how you can handle the sadness. Show him some coping skills such as making a cup of tea, or taking a warm bath.

  1. Keep to routine & boundaries

Children feel safe when they know what to expect, through routines and boundaries set by parents. During times of death, routine and boundaries might be very hard to keep to. Let your child know what is going to happen, when he can expect to bath, eat or sleep. Try sticking to your basic household routine as far as possible & explain deviations to your child.

  1. Expect some acting out and allow your child to experience emotions

Everybody grieves differently. Some people rationalize the situation, others become overwhelmed by crying and sadness. Some people tend to keep emotions to themselves and prefer spending time alone, others prefer being around people to keep their mind off the situation. Children are the same, every child reacts to loss differently and due to their limited capacity to regulate and comprehend their emotions, some children might act out is different ways. Anger, frustration, confusion, crying, nightmares and even denial or acting as if nothing has happened, is all very normal reactions for your child. Allow them to experience emotions, and attempt to assist them to label the emotion they are facing.

Should you at any point have concerns with regards to the manner in which your child is reacting to grief or loss, please seek professional help.

** This article is not in any way a substitute for professional assistance, but only a guide to managing loss with a toddler.