Two year olds struggle to grasp the finality of death. They imagine that death simply means that people go to a different place – either in the sky, or under the ground. They may not realise, even when there’s a death in their immediate family, that it means forever, or what forever means, and they certainly don’t understand that they can also die.
While your child may not grasp the situation, you will almost certainly see a difference in your two year old when you’re dealing with bereavement. This may manifest in your child’s behaviour – he or she may become more clingy, or refuses to participate in normal parts of his or her routine. This is because your child has picked up on the emotions of the adults around him or her, and the other commotion that usually accompanies a death in the family. On the other hand, your child may show a reaction only sometimes, going on with normal play one moment, and reverting to different behaviour at other times. Some children even seem to have no reaction to death at all – simply going about their days as they would before. All of these are normal responses in two year olds.
When you talk to your child about death, you need to express your own emotions. Tell your child that you are feeling sad, because someone you cared about has died.
Answer any questions that your child may have as simply and briefly as you can. Tell your child that the person has died, and that that means that they can’t talk, eat, run or play any more. This helps your child to put the meaning of death into perspective. You can also tell your child that he or she does not have to worry, and that if you die, you have a plan in place so that someone else can take care of him or her.
Don’t tell your child that someone is sleeping, or has gone away. Your child knows that when people sleep, they wake up, and that when they go away, they also come back. This will simply confuse your child even more.
Try not to bring religion into your discussions of death too much, or mention an afterlife at this age – it can make the topic of death more confusing to a child. After all, if his grandmother is happy in heaven, then why is everyone else so sad?
Prepare yourself for any reaction. Children can become sad, take it in their stride, or bombard you with all kinds of questions. All of these are normal responses, and you should be prepared to deal with them. Making a memorial to the deceased, or having a little ceremony where you light a candle, and talk about the person you’ve lost, can help. Don’t take your child to a funeral though – that can be too scary for most two year olds.
Deal with the death of a pet with the same reverence as you would a person, and try to normalise your child’s life as much as possible after you’ve experienced any kind of death in the family. This will help your child to cope as time goes by.