How to Tell a Child About the Death of a Grandparent

Published November 9, 2020
Mother comforting teary young girl

How to tell a child about the death of a grandparent confounds many loved ones. Helping a child cope with loss and offering them support shows your care and sensitivity. Here are some things for parents to remember as they help a child process the loss of a grandparent.

Telling a Child About the Death of a Grandparent

Telling a child a grandparent has passed away can be quite difficult due to the special relationship involved. Grandparents provide an important step and link in a child's relationships outside of the immediate family. Whether they provide care for the child on a regular basis or only see the child on special occasions, the grandparents provide a relationship with the oldest generation and significant connections outside the home. Their memories of their grandparents link them to a legacy of their past and the heritage of their family.

How to Say Grandpa or Grandma Passed Away

Understanding death is a process for a child. Development experts agree there are different stages a child goes through as they grasp what death is. Keep this development in mind as you determine how to tell a child about the death of a grandparent. Here are some guidelines for your words at each developmental stage.

How to Tell Preschool-Age Children

A preschool-aged child may not be able to grasp the concept of death. Rather than going into detail and explaining what caused the death, it's best to speak in terms of the body. Preschoolers often see death as a temporary, reversible thing. Assure the child they did nothing to cause the death. Don't frighten the child with intense emotions, but know that it is okay to let them know that you feel sad and miss grandma or grandpa too. Help them understand that not every illness leads to death. You can consider saying:

  • "Grandpa was very old and his body wasn't able to work anymore."
  • "Since Grandma died, she cannot walk or eat anymore, but she doesn't feel any pain now."
  • "People don't always die when they become ill. Remember the cold I had before Christmas? I am all better now."
  • "I miss Grandpa very much. Sometimes grown-ups cry when they are sad just like you do."

How to Tell Early Elementary Age Children

Between the ages of five and nine, most children begin to understand that all living things eventually die. Expect your child to keep asking the same questions and be patient with them as they process your responses. Use the same words and compassion as if you were hearing them for the first time. Images of death may frighten children and spur more questions. They may have nightmares about dying. Help your child remember the deceased grandparent, while assuring them of the joy and comfort they bring to you during difficult times.

  • "Grandpa died yesterday and will no longer be with us when we celebrate Thanksgiving."
  • "Grandma died because she was so sick. It is good that Grandma no longer feels such pain."
  • "I miss Grandpa, too. Would you like to draw a picture of the two of you on our last vacation?"
  • "We are all sad because of Grandma's death. Let me know if you have any questions or want to talk."

How to Tell Late Elementary Age and Older Children

From age nine on, the child may begin to see that death is irreversible. They may understand that death occurs to people they know and love, and they begin to process the reality that they will also die at some point in time. They may ask questions about what the dying process is like and experience their own emotional process when it comes to discussing death versus taking cues from the adults around them.

  • "I have some sad news to tell you. Grandpa died last night at the hospital."
  • "It is natural for all of us to be sad and miss Grandma. If you'd like, we can remember Grandma by doing something that she always liked to do. Would you like to help me work in the garden at some point?"
  • "Grandpa died last night. Know that I am here for you if you want to talk about anything. Are there any questions you'd like to ask me?"
  • "Grandma's death was nothing that we could prevent; but what we can do is keep Grandma's memory alive in our minds and hearts. If you'd like we can make a scrapbook of some of our good times together when you feel ready to do so."

Difficult Words, but Defining Moments

Part of the process of dealing with grief is finding ways to express what has happened. The relationship shared between a child and their grandparents carries importance and value. Communication helps make sense of circumstances and begins steps toward acceptance. Telling a child, "Grandma has died," may be difficult. The words may seem to come slowly, but the thoughts shared with a child can become defining moments. Here are some tips to remember.

Avoid Euphemisms

Being open and honest in the words you share helps give meaning and understanding to the powerful emotions of the moment. Euphemisms can be especially confusing for younger children who are just beginning to grasp the concept of death.

Be Straight-Forward, but Don't Volunteer Details

Presenting honest facts keeps the mind from speculating and the imagination from running wild. Offer information that is age appropriate, but try not to over-share details, as this can be confusing. Typically with kids, if they have questions, they will ask them.

Don't Be Surprised by a Variety of Emotions

Realize that no matter what words you choose, or however you approach the subject, your child may show a range of emotions, and that's okay. Regardless of what they are expressing on the outside, know that it is important to continue supporting them and checking in with them regarding their emotional process.

Keep Things Consistent

It is important for a child to have structure, routine, and consistency. As much as possible, keep daily routines in place for your child, especially meal times and bed time. Ensure that the child continues to participate in the usual activities at school and at social events. Know that it is also okay to show some flexibility if they are feeling especially upset or low one day, and you can make adjustments accordingly.

Young girl concentrating on building blocks with her mother and talking

Don't Cloud Your Language With Analogies

Find realistic and concrete words to use as you describe death. Research continues to show that using concrete words helps the child in the grieving process. Though words like death and died are difficult to use, phrases like passed away, lost, crossed over, taken home, she's in a better place, or went to sleep causes may cause confusion in the mind of a young child. They may not understand the reference, and they may apply the meaning to other situations.

Share Information in Small Portions

Death can feel overwhelming to a child, so be sure to share information in appropriate amounts. Read your child's cues and ask them if they'd like to talk about something else if they feel too overwhelmed. Remind them that it is okay to feel however they feel and that you will both continue talking through this and that you are there for them.

Don't Be Afraid to Say, "I Don't Know"

Sometimes the best answer you can give is simply that you don't know all the answers. It is helpful to tell your child that you may not know certain things about the details of the death or about questions that have no easy answer.

Tears Are Healing

It is healthy and healing to cry over the loss of a loved one. Do not be afraid to share that experience with your child. While they do not need to see an intense emotional moment, tears are a natural way to express sad, frustrating, and difficult emotions. No matter what, it's important to always let your child know that you are able to take care of them, so they feel safe and supported during this time.

Woman hugging her daughter

Expect to Talk More Than Once

It is likely that you will have to speak about this subject often for some time. The child may process information which will later spur more questions. Check back with the child and be open and available for ongoing questions and discussions. Understanding death is a process.

Prepare the Child for the Services

Some images the child will see will be unique and brand new. Tell them what they will see, who will be there, how people may be feeling, and what the people may be doing. Be specific, especially for young children, so that nothing takes them by surprise. Be willing to speak with them after the services to debrief them about what they saw and how they felt. Let them know that at any point you can take them outside if they feel uncomfortable.

Allow Your Child to Participate

Depending upon the child's age, their presence at the funeral home or at the service may be helpful as they process the loss. Even if they cannot be present, allow them to help pick photos for the memorial or help remember the grandparent's favorite hymn, poem, reading, or Scripture that will be used in the service. This may help them feel part of the process.

Little girl laying flowers on the coffin

Don't Place a Time Limit on Bereavement

Everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Adjusting to a new life without their loved one will take time to process. Birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays may trigger strong emotions. Don't give your child a time limit when it comes to processing this loss.

How to Tell a Child About the Death of a Grandparent

Deciding how to tell a child about the death of a grandparent is an important part of learning to process the details of life. Grieving the loss of a loved one takes time and care. If you need additional support, professionals at your child's school, your physician, child therapists, or leaders at your religious community can help.

How to Tell a Child About the Death of a Grandparent