Chapter 4: Preschool children’s grief

How young children experience and express grief

What the grief expert says
Lysa Toye, social worker, psychotherapist, talks about how young children experience and understand concepts of death and grief.(3:22)Video transcript
What the educator says
Ruth Lindsey-Armstrong, ECE instructor, talks about watching for changes in behaviour.(3:22)
Ruth Lindsey-Armstrong, ECE instructor, explains how children try to make sense of their world through play.(3:22)
Ruth, ECE instructor, talks about dealing with controversial play.(3:22)Video transcript
Play can help children gain a sense of powerRuth, ECE instructor, explains how play can help children gain a sense of power. (3:22)Video transcript

“She had always been happy to arrive at school and start her day. Now, she cries and cries and wants to cling to her dad when she arrives and is very distressed when her dad leaves”. - Teacher

Young children tend to express their grief through behaviours. 

Click on the arrows to see some of these expressions of grief.

Children at this age tend to have a wonderful ability to balance joy and sorrow at the same time. They can move very quickly between intense grief responses and playing happily. Their grief often looks like puddle jumping. When they’re in the puddle of grief, it feels huge – then they jump out and quickly resume playing and join in other activities. This is normal. It’s important to recognize that a child who is playing and having fun can still be grieving deeply.


Grief is a very physical experience for young children, so they often benefit from having opportunities to engage in physical activity. Many children benefit from adults helping them to find safe ways to express their feelings physically such as by punching a pillow, kicking a soccer ball, squeezing a stress ball, tearing paper, scribbling, being held by someone, or hugging a stuffy.