Supporting bereaved children under 5

How to support very young children after the death of a parent or sibling

The death of a parent or sibling is a devastating experience for any child and often adults don’t know what to say or how to support them. If your child is under five then this can be even more difficult because they might not understand what has happened or be able to express their feelings. The expert team at Winston’s Wish offers their advice on how to tell a very young child that someone has died, how to help them express their feelings and whether they should attend the funeral.

Should I tell a young child about the death of a parent or sibling?

Many adults wish to protect children when a death happens and can think that by not talking about it their children will not be affected. However, even young children are sensitive to what’s going on around them and pick up feelings and atmosphere within the family. They are more likely to worry or blame themselves if things are kept from them. They may think they should not talk about the person who has died or show their feelings.

Even babies will notice that someone who used to make them feel safe and cared for is missing. Although babies and young children might not yet understand what death is or why it has happened we know that children are never too young to grieve.

Do young children understand death and how do I explain it?

Very young children will not understand the finality of death and often think it is reversible and that a loved one can come back. So it’s important to use clear and simple language like ‘dead’ and ‘died’. Young children will also have a very literal understanding, so avoid euphemisms like ‘we’ve lost Daddy’ as they will think ‘where can we find him?’

We need to show young children the difference between dead and alive and using nature can be a useful way to help them understand death. You could encourage your children to look at the differences between dead and alive insects or plants and ask them questions like:

  • What does it look like?
  • Does it move?
  • Is it breathing?
  • Has it changed how it looks?

These examples from nature can help young children to begin to understand the difference between dead and alive people too, and help them slowly start to piece together understanding.

How might children’s grief change as they get older?

As a family, grieving can be very difficult and there may be new challenges along the way. As a child grows and develops there will be new questions and things to consider. They will begin to understand more about death and so you can begin to give them more information about the death of their loved one.

Keep talking about the loved one who died, be led by children but let them know it is ok to remember the special person and ask new questions. Acknowledge that things can feel strange and difficult without a parent or a sibling there. For example, you could say:

“I wonder if you are missing Toby, I know it’s sad that he is not here.”

Think about ways you can include the memory of deceased loved ones in special occasions, if this feels right for your family.

Should young children attend a funeral?

We are often asked whether a child, especially a very young child, should attend a funeral. This is not a straightforward decision and is an individual choice for parents and carers – you know your children’s needs. However, our experience tells us that for some young children, it can be really helpful to be included in a funeral. It can help them understand the significance of what has happened and, when they are older, the memories can help inform their understanding.

If a child is going to attend a funeral, then they need to be prepared for what to expect. So, spend some time talking to them about what they might see or hear, and explain things like a burial or cremation. For example you could say:

“A funeral is a time for people to say goodbye when someone has died. The body of the person is put in a coffin, which is something special to carry a body in. People choose music and words that the person would have liked to remember them.”

“At the funeral, Mummy’s body will be in the coffin, it will come in a big special car and all the grown-ups will carry it inside. There will then be a special service with words and music to remember Mummy. Afterwards, we will go outside and the coffin will be placed in a big hole in the ground, then covered with flowers and soil.”

“After we have said our goodbyes to Mummy, some music will play and a curtain will go around the special box. Mummy’s body will be moved to a hot room, where it will be turned to ash. Remember the body does not feel any pain so it won’t hurt as the body has stopped working.”

“Lots of people will be feeling really sad, as they miss Mummy. They might be crying but that is ok. People might also be smiling or laughing when they remember happy times but that is ok too.”

Depending on the age of your child, it might also be helpful to involve them in the planning for a funeral or memorial service. For example:

  • Would they like to put something special in the coffin?
  • Can they help choose what the person will wear?
  • Can they help choose the colours of the flowers?


If your child isn’t able to attend then here are some suggestions for alternative ways to say goodbye.

Supporting young children with their feelings

All children, even younger children, will experience a range of emotions after the death of a parent or sibling. Children can be encouraged to explore these emotions through play and observing others. Often adults want to protect children by hiding their emotions, however, sometimes showing children how you feel can help them to understand that it is ok to express their own feelings too.

It can be helpful to name your feelings and explain them, for example:

“Mummy is feeling sad today, because I am missing Daddy.”

If you notice that your child is struggling, help them to name their own emotions too, for example:

“You look like you are feeling cross, is that right?”

Activities to help children express their feelings

Children learn through play and storytelling so using these tools and activities can really help. Our book Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine has lots of activities you can do with your children to help them cope with their grief – here are a couple of them:

Fizzing feelings bottle:

This simple activity that can help to show young children how feelings can get all mixed up and can be explosive. Shake a bottle of fizzy drink and then take the lid off to show how feelings can burst right out. You could encourage your children to name their own feelings that might be ‘all mixed up’. Then repeat the activity with another bottle, but this time release the lid slowly and show that feelings can also come out in a more managed way. You can talk about the different feelings as they are released. For very young children they might only be able to name very simple feelings such as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ but this activity can begin to encourage discussion around feelings.

Making a memory box:

A memory box is a special place that your child can keep and treasure all kinds of things that can remind them of the person who has died. This might be drawings, photographs or objects. Some very young children may not have many memories so these items can help you talk to them about the person who has died in the future. For example shells from a holiday might be a reminder of happy times spent together.

You can find more activities here.

Useful books for bereaved young children

There are some children’s books which some families, carers and professionals have found helpful to support young children who are grieving.

  • I miss you – a first look at death by Pat Thomas
  • Missing Mummy by Rebecca Cobb
  • Is Daddy coming back in a minute? By Alex Barber and Elke Barber
  • Always and Forever by Alan Durant
  • Never Too Young To Grieve by Winston’s Wish – our specialise book provides more detailed support and guidance for parents, carers and professionals supporting children under five.

You can find more books on our suggested reading list here.

Where to get grief support

Winston’s Wish is a charity that helps children, teenagers and young adults (up to the age of 25) find their feet when their worlds are turned upside down by grief. Through information about grief, on-demand helpline, email and live chat services, bereavement support and counselling, we support young people to understand their feelings, process their grief and find ways to move forward with hope for a brighter future.

We also help the adults who are caring for young grieving people, including parents, school staff and healthcare professionals, through information, resources, training and on-demand services.

If you need guidance and support, you can call us on 08088 020 021 (open 8am-8pm, weekdays), email or use our live chat (open 8am-8pm, weekdays). You can find out more about the support we offer on our Get Support page.

Our Winston’s Wish Crisis Messenger is available 24/7 for urgent support in a crisis. Text WW to 85258.

Other resources you might find helpful
Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine book cover
Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine

This activity book helps young children to  explore and understand their feelings after the death of a loved one and begin to make sense of their grief.

Never too young to grieve
Never Too Young To Grieve

This specialist book, written by the Winston’s Wish team, offers advice to parents, carers and professionals supporting children under five after a death.