How do you talk to a child when a grandparent dies? Talk amongst yourselves.

From Marita:

My father in-law recently passed away and I had to tell my 3yo and 5yo. We had some notice that he would be passing away (he was diagnosed several months ago with lung cancer) so I tried to prepare my girls by reading Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie. We also read a social story called "What is Death."

The day granddad died I wrote another social story, and since then we've been reading a book called When I'm Feeling Sad by Trace Moroney (I can't praise the Trace Moroney When I'm Feeling series of books enough — they are fabulous).

I'd love to find out what other Parenthackers have done in similar situations. How to you help a grieving child? I'm particularly wondering about things to do other than reading books. My 3yo seems to have no understanding or care about Granddad being gone but she is clinging to particular toys and getting upset when things go missing. My 5yo has reverted to baby talk, is asking for toys she had as an infant (and surprising me with her memory of those toys) and is having potty accidents.

My sympathies are with you and your family, Marita. I admire all the work you've already done preparing and talking with your little girls — for so many, death is too overwhelming a topic to even address directly. In my experience, the more openly we can talk (and listen) to our kids about death, the better our children will cope with it. My kids' only experience with the loss of an elderly loved one was my uncle, to whom I was very close. We attended the funeral and they had lots of questions afterward — everything ranging from the physical specifics to our spiritual beliefs. We've talked a lot about it ever since.

For both of my kids, even before my uncle passed away, four years old was the moment they both became aware of their mortality and wanted to talk about it. I try to subscribe to the guideline "tell them as much as they are asking for, but no more." Their imaginations get the better of them on this topic, so I try to keep my explanations brief and comforting.

I'm not sure there is more you can do beyond giving them time. I wonder if a ritual, say, lighting a candle for your father in-law each week for as long as you feel necessary, or putting a picture of him out for everyone to see, would help give your five year-old a way to channel her grief and confusion?

Parenthackers, do you have a story to share?

Related: Parenting without one's own mother


  1. Mrs. Davis says

    My mom died when our oldest was 5 years old. We read the “Lifetimes” book you mentioned above in the weeks before she died, and it was somewhat helpful. We also have gone back to look at pictures of my mom a lot since then and talked about my son’s memories of her. It’s been over 3 years now, and I’m glad my son still has clear/strong/happy memories of her. I think I was so wrapped up in my own grief at the time, and traveling back to my parents’ home to help, that I didn’t even notice some of the behavioral things that may have surfaced.

  2. says

    I think a fabulous story to help young children is a children’s play by Aurand Harris entitled “The Arkansaw Bear”. It is about a little girl who is dealing with her grandfather’s death.

  3. mom'o3 says

    We recently lost my husband’s mother. It was sudden & unexpected. My church counselor offered your similar advise. Take your child’s lead. My biggest question came with whether or not to view the body. They did (7, 5, 2) and i think it was good for all of us. My 5 year old seemed to be bothered by the crying and the fact that he didn’t do much of it. My 7 yr. old drew a picture of her & grandma right away and still expresses her feelings in her drawings months later. One of them mentions her death daily. Another important part is giving yourself time to grieve alone. I try to let my emotions take over me when they’re busy and that helps when it’s time to listen to them.

  4. says

    I’ll join the flood of Lifetimes praise. I love how simple and direct it is, and how grounded in reality it is as well. My mother bought my sister and me a copy of it after our great-aunt died when we were little, and we brought it out again when my grandmother died. Even at age 13, I found it comforting.

    More recently, we’ve passed it on to one of my aunts, since an uncle of mine died unexpectedly and they have three young children. My aunt says that book has been a great help for them as well.

  5. Jennifer says

    Just In Case You Ever Wonder by Max Lucado, it was invaluable in explaining death to my 3 year old.

  6. says

    My 4 y.o. daughter talks about death and dying all the time, though she has yet to experience it outside of a dead plant in autumn or a dead raccoon in the road. I try to be honest with her about death — it happens to everyone, we hope after a long good life, but we don’t know for sure. People feel very sad when someone they love dies, but we remember the good times we had with them and the things we loved about them and that makes it a little easier.

    I think it’s important not to shy away from the subject, but I also find I sometimes have to re-direct her when she starts obsessing on the subject. But again, we’re only talking about death as a concept, not experiencing the actual loss of a family member.

    The comments about books being helpful remind me of the time recently that children’s author Lois Lowry posted about a book that helped her young granddaughter cope after the sudden death of her father, Lowry’s son. Stories are terrifically powerful tools for helping us cope with change.

    Marita, I’m sorry for your loss, and wish you and your family well at this difficult time.

  7. says

    We are going through something similar as I just had a 2nd trimester miscarriage. My children were very excited about having a new sibling. Some of the books about death don’t really work for pregnancy loss (since, for ex., none of us were ever able to see our baby). Does anyone have any suggestions that might work for us (my children are 3 and 6 years old). Thanks.

  8. Mary Wells says

    When my grandfather died, I was seven, and my mom got me The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. Totally seventies, but totally timeless in the way it addresses emotions around death, remembering the one who has died, and just the way the day looks when you are grieving. Barney is a cat, but the lessons here are powerful and reverent and definitely apply to humans too. When my grandmother died a few years ago, I did not do enough to address it with my son, who carried sadness for her for much longer than i expected he would. Sorry for your loss- this is an important topic.

  9. says

    We recently had a sudden death in the family, just before Christmas. In our research of “how to tell 3 and 4 years olds” we found that most experts think that children consider themselves to be immortal. That notion goes well into their teens (and explains a lot!) and despite them “knowing” about death they cannot really grasp the idea.

    My son (4) and his cousin (3), whose grandmother had died, took it all matter of factly (“so she won’t come back? Okay”) and needed more help in understanding why everybody else was so upset.

    My sister in law picked a star in the night sky and told her daughter that that star is her grandmothers “spirit” watching her. That led to a little nightly ritual of saying Good Night to the star before she went to bed.
    I think that is a nice way of remembering.

  10. R says

    Our 8 year old lost both his Grandfather and his Nan (my father and mother in law) within months of each other late last year.

    The hospital recommended a children’s bereavement centre who offer individual, family or group counselling. You may be able to find something similar in your city.

    The centre recommended a book called Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine which contains a series of guided activities. There are sections to write about themselves and their memories of the person who has died.

    It’s a lovely little book and we will be keeping it for him to look through and remember how fabulous his grandparents were when he gets older.

  11. monera says

    Charlotte’s Web is a good choice to talk about life and death.

    My parents told me both the star thing and that my pets went to the farm, and when I found out the truth I had a lot of trust issues with my parents. I was a precocious child, and felt very betrayed.

    How could a star be grandpa when the light we are seeing now is 2 million years old?

    If you are going to use a story it may be best to stick to one that is not falsifiable.

  12. cw says

    Someone asked about animal death in the comments and I’d like to suggest Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant (there’s a Dog Heaven book too). It’s a great book and made this not particularly sentimental commenter weepy. It would be a good jumping off point, I think, to talk about the death of a loved one too. Rylant postulates that cats get all the cream they could ever want in Cat Heaven — It would be a great place to start a talk about what a child would think Grandma would love to be doing in Heaven (eg: what her passion was on earth and what we all will remember her for).

  13. Alex says

    Seriously, I was just about to write with a similar question: How other folks keep family members who have passed away part of your child’s life/memory/knowledge.

    We’re starting a new tradition here. Every time one of my parents (both deceased) has a birthday, I will make a new page for the “About Grandpa” or “About Grandma” book. Hopefully Mother’s/Father’s Days too, we’ll see. Then I can show the kiddo the book and the new addition. I figure, if I could have gotten them cards/presents when they were alive, I can do this now.

    When my mom died, K was a baby. When I told people about the service, I told them I was collecting happy memories for the grandma book. Some of them were wonderful, and some were not really appropriate for little kids, but it was a great start.

    Our general toddler/death line is, “We’re sad that we don’t get to see her anymore.”

  14. Kate says

    The episode of Sesame Street where Big Bird talks with his friends about Mr. Hooper’s death is still quite relevant for a younger child and can be found on YouTube.

  15. Rebecca says

    WE have always had fish, little betas or goldfish. When DD’s beloved beta fish died when she was 4 years old, it started our conversation about death. We took the dead fish to our local cemetery and found a grave that had flowers on it. We buried the fish close to the grave (I figured the people who cared enough to keep flowers on the grave wouldn’t mind) and we had made a homemade sign that said “RIP Fishy” Then we stood talked about what we loved about fishy and the good times we had with him.

    I know it sounds silly, but having a pet that the child loved and having a funeral for that pet really helped 2 years later dealing with the death of her great grandmother. We were able to talk about the life that she led and we talked about how the funeral would be very much like the one we had for Fishy. Children are scared of the unexpected and the unknown. I think my daughter felt a little better knowing what to expect.

  16. says

    Thank you everyone for the very helpful and informative comments. I’ve been reading and taking notes and we are visiting our local library again soon to borrow some of the books mentioned.

    I really appreciate hearing that it is okay just to keep letting the girls talk about it and we have been looking at pictures of Granddad a bit more often.

    Thank you.

  17. Greg says

    Please accept my condolences for your loss.

    My children (3 & 5) have not yet had to deal with the loss of a close loved one.

    However, I keep the topic of death open for casual conversation with my kids.

    The oldest ask questions like “When will you die?” “When will I die?” One evening he said “God bless Daddy that he dies in 85 years.” (I am 45).

    Last year when his preschool teacher’s father passed away, we took the boys to the visitation. I allowed them to view the body, just letting them take the lead and answering their questions honestly.