Grief and Loss- Babies and Toddlers

How do babies and toddlers experience grief?

Big losses, from the loss of a favourite toy to the death of someone close, can result in a child experiencing many different thoughts and feelings. This is grief.  Babies and toddlers will grieve for many different reasons.  They may grieve the death of people or pets who are close to them.  They might also grieve changes such as separation from parents or caregivers. 

Children do not grieve like adults. What children understand and how they deal with loss depends on their stage of development:  

  • Babies do not understand death, but they do grieve. They may show signs of anxiety by changes in behaviour such as crying and clinging to caregivers. 
  • Children under three do not understand that death is forever. They may expect the person to return. 
  • Toddlers may believe their thoughts or actions caused their loss. 
  • There might be changes of behaviour such as sleep problems, crying and acting out. 

If you are worried that a child's symptoms are severe, or that they have lasted too long, speak with your family doctor or other medical professional

Talking about Death and Dying 

It can be hard to talk to a young child about death or someone who is dying.  Most people want to protect children from what is happening.  It is helpful to talk to children about death and dying before they experience the death of someone important to them.  Death is part of our lives on many levels.  Children are exposed to death through movies, storybooks and from insects dying.  Use day-to-day activities as occasions to talk about the natural cycle of life and death. This will help children understand what death is and helps to prepare them for potential loss.   

Talk to children in an open and honest way about death and dying. Children are often able to feel or see that something is going on; do not hide it from them. 

Some other tips include:

  • Encourage them to talk about their thoughts and feelings.  Tell them that it is okay to feel happy, even though they are grieving. 
  • Tell children that a loved one is dying.  Tell them the truth and listen to what they are saying.  Give them time to ask questions and to share their feelings. 
  • Avoid using words such as: "passed away", "gone to heaven" or "sleeping"; these words might confuse them. Use the real word 'death' or 'dying'. 
  • Remind children that sick people do not always die. 
  • Tell children that what they are feeling is normal and it is okay to cry. Help them to show their feelings by talking, painting, coloring, using puppets and music. 
  • Help children to feel safe and secure.  Try to keep children's routines the same as before. 

Death, Religion and Culture 

Different beliefs about death and dying as well as different traditions for funerals and burials are seen across religions and cultures.  The above information is meant to give you general guidance when dealing with a death or loss.  Reaching out to your faith community for support may also be helpful to you and your family.  

For more information on how to talk to children about death and to support children who are grieving, visit kidsgrief.ca

To learn about local initiatives, please visit:

Do you have more questions about parenting?

  • Connect with a registered nurse from Health811 for free, secure, and confidential health advice. Service is available 24/7 in English and French, with translation support also offered in other languages. Call 8-1-1 or visit Health811.ontario.ca.
  • Connect with a Community Navigator from 2-1-1 for information about community programs and resources across Eastern Ontario. Helpline service is available 24/7 and in many different languages. Call 2-1-1 or visit 211ontario.ca.
  • Connect with a Public Health Nurse and other parents on the Parenting in Ottawa Facebook page.
  • There are a variety of services to make it easier for your child to grow up healthy in Ottawa.
  • You can update your child's immunization record using either the CANImmunize App or the Immunization Connect Ontario (ICON) Tool
  • If you have received a message from Ottawa Public Health such as a letter or a call regarding immunization, an infectious disease, or infection control lapse, please call 613-580-6744 and listen to the menu options carefully.

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