When you lose one of your parents, you may not know how to tell a child about the death of a grandparent. Your instincts may be to shelter them from the truth or to sugarcoat things to make the loss more bearable. But, it is possible to talk to kids about death in a clear and loving way that they'll understand.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Talk About the Death
- Step 2: What Happens Next
- Step 3: Ease Their Fear of Death
- Step 4: Spirituality and Death
- Step 5: Allow Time to Heal
Before having this conversation, consider the child's age, maturity level, and relationship to their grandparent who has died.
You can gauge the tone of the conversation by what you think your child is capable of accepting and understanding. It's useful to consider their emotional maturity level when deciding which words to use. Allow your child to ask questions as the conversation develops, and respond with clear and honest answers.
Speaking clearly will help to avoid confusion and mixed emotions as your child processes that their grandparent has died. Below are some useful steps to help you work through this when the time is right.
Tip: Talking to your children about the death of their grandparent is one of many challenging tasks you might be facing. Our post-loss checklist can help guide you through the rest of that process.
Step 1: Talk About the Death
It may take a while for the news to sink in that your child's grandparent has died. Allow time for them to digest the information without overloading them with too much detail all at once. Depending on your child’s age, you may have to explain it a few times until they fully grasp that their grandparent is not coming back.
Take care not to use language that can be taken to mean that the grandparent is only temporarily away. For example, saying things like “Grandma has left us,” or “We’ll see her again soon,” may set the expectation that grandma will return at a future date.
Use clear language
Use comforting words. Don’t worry if you feel as if you don't know how to console someone. It’s understandable if you can’t find the right words to say, especially if you’ve never had to do it before.
When dealing with a child who has lost their grandparent, it’s useful if you choose words that comfort and reassure them. This doesn’t mean telling them that everything will be okay, or that things will go back to normal. It may be that things are not okay for a little while, and maybe things will never go back to “normal” for them.
Avoid euphemisms. Another thing to look out for is calling death by a name other than what it is. Using flowery language or softening what has happened may leave your child confused. This confusion may lead to later resentment because your child may think that you were keeping something from them as they mature and begin to understand death.
Be clear and direct when explaining to your child that their grandparent has died. It may be difficult for them to process at first, but with time, they will begin to accept and understand their loss.
Explain feelings. One way of allowing your child to explore their feelings about the death of their grandparent is to encourage them to read children’s books about death.
There are free resources on death and dying available at your local public library suitable for young readers. You may consider sitting and reading these books to your child, or if they’re old enough, allowing them the time and space to read them whenever they’re ready.
It’s important to understand how your child wants to proceed with exploring their feelings toward death. They may prefer to sit and talk with you about it instead of reading it in a book. If this is the case, consider using the books as a conversation starter, or as a way to follow up on your discussion.
A child may not understand what is happening even after you sit and explain what death is to them. You can use other ways of easing them to show them how their life has changed.
For example, if their grandparent used to come to every dance recital, explain to them that is no longer possible and why. Give them alternatives as to who will now be there to watch their performances. It’s important to maintain your child’s schedule as normal as possible when going through your own grieving process.
It may be that your child starts to show signs of withdrawal, aggression, or acting out in ways that are unusual for them. These things are a normal part of grieving.
Sit with your child and try to determine what they're feeling and going through. Allow them the time and space needed for them to feel comfortable opening up to you. Sometimes all it takes is for them to know that they can count on you to listen whenever they feel like talking.
Step 2: What Happens Next
Depending on your child’s age, consider explaining what happens after death. When you explain to your child what a funeral is, it makes the entire process a little less scary.
Try explaining to them in words that they’ll understand what a viewing is, and why there'll be people there who are sad and may be crying. The more you prepare your child for what happens at a funeral, the less intimidated they will feel when the time comes.
If it helps to involve your child in the funeral planning process, assign them a simple yet important task like handing out pamphlets or water bottles to guests. Try not to force your child into doing anything at the funeral. They may not yet be emotionally mature enough to handle the responsibility when they are still trying to process their loss.
Step 3: Ease Their Fear of Death
After everyone has gone home from the funeral, your child may be experiencing difficulties in accepting or understanding death in the days and weeks that follow. Try and understand that the way a child processes death is limited to their narrow experience with death and dying. They may ask a lot of questions that you aren’t prepared to answer or talk about when dealing with grief.
You may also be confronted with your child’s fear of dying or of mom and dad dying next. They may interpret their grandparent's death as being a precursor to their own death or that of their parents.
Your child may be feeling overwhelmed with grief and may have an elevated and irrational fear of death at this time. It helps to reassure them that this isn't how death happens. No one stands in line to be next, and that they won’t be placed on any list.
Step 4: Spirituality and Death
Explaining death to children from a spiritual standpoint will depend on your family’s spiritual and religious beliefs. Relying on faith-based texts to tell the story about what happens to us after we die may help guide you in what to say to your child to ease their fear of death.
They may also be experiencing death anxiety right about now. Explaining death through stories and parables may help ease those fears. These basic teachings may help you to further explain to your child what happens to us after we die.
You may want to take care not to plant a seed in your child’s mind of who “God chooses” to take from this earth. This may make them develop a fear of being “God’s chosen one,” and they may begin to act out in ways that are opposite of whatever that may be.
Step 5: Allow Time to Heal
Although a child may be too young to fully grasp the concept of grief and loss, and needing time to go through a grieving process in order to heal — they will be faced with many of the same emotions that you might be feeling. It helps to continue having open talks with your child about having lost their grandparent, how they are feeling, and about how you might be able to help them cope with their grief.
You and your child can sit together and write personal letters to the grandparent that has died. You may want to encourage your child to write about their feelings, and encourage them to tell their grandparent how much they love and miss them. This can be a way for them to continue the bond they had with their grandparent and will help them in their healing process.
Another way to help your child with their grieving is to encourage them to draw pictures of their grandparent, how they remember them, and how they are feeling now that their grandparent has died. Sit and discuss these drawings with your child.
Allow them a chance to explain what they have drawn and what it means to them. Try not to criticize them or correct them in any way as they tell you about what they have been experiencing.
If you think that your child’s suffering and mourning is more than they can handle on their own or through the use of these types of healing activities, consider seeking professional counseling - either individually or in a group with other members of your immediate family.
Finding the Right Words to Say to a Child
Explaining the concept of death to a child can be complicated. Sometimes children will hide their true feelings and emotions thinking that they need to be strong for their mommies and daddies, especially if they witness their parents’ own suffering.
It’s okay to let your child know how much the death of their grandparent hurts you as well. Being open and honest about death and your own feelings of loss will help your child process their grief and accept their loss in time.
If you're looking to read more about kids and grief, read our guide on taking kids to funerals or memorial services.