How to tell children Grandma died is a heart-wrenching challenge. Unlike adults, children don’t have a greater understanding of death as a part of life. Nor can they comprehend abstract concepts. Consequently, children need simple words and short sentences. For this reason, explaining Grandma’s death presents challenges for parents. Yet, you can make difficult conversations about death easier by being honest and brief.
Avoid sugarcoating death
For many parents, ‘sugarcoating’ Grandma’s death by glossing over the details feels instinctive. But children know when their parents are lying to protect them. So the best approach is, to be honest, give age-appropriate explanations and be brief. For example, “Grandma died because her heart stopped working, which made her body stop working. When that happens, a person can no longer live,” works well for preschoolers and elementary school-aged children.
- Avoid sugarcoating death.
- Encourage questions about death.
- Use children’s questions to determine the level of detail given.
- Create opportunities for children to express their grief using toys and dolls.
- Promote the understanding of grief as a process, not an event.
- Show your emotions.
What is an age-appropriate explanation about death?
A child’s understanding of death depends on their developmental level, thinking skills, personality, religious beliefs, teachings by parents, input from the media, and previous experiences with death. However, some general age-related guidelines apply.
Infants and Toddlers
Babies and toddlers don’t understand death, but they sense when adults caring form them are sad.
The aim is to reassure little ones the sadness they sense is independent to them. With this in mind, replace words with actions. Simple activities like nursing and infant or toddler while holding a photograph of Grandma or scrolling through favorite images projects sadness onto the pictures. Saying something like, “Mommy is sad because Grandma died” can help. While the words are not understood, the comforting actions and reassuring tones are.
Young children view death as a temporary separation, rather than permanent. Some even think it is reversible. Preschoolers frequently apply magical thinking. For instance, if the explanation for Grandma’s death is, “The angels came last night and took Grandma”, the child may fear bedtime because an angel might take them away too. Alternatively, a child might keep asking, “When are the angels bringing Grandma back?” Gentle but straightforward and honest explanations are best.
“Grandma died because her heart stopped working, which made her body stop working. When that happens, a person can no longer live.”
Between the ages of five to nine, children comprehend the finality of death. Again, gentle, but honest statements are best. “I have some sad news. Grandma died last night.” Depending on your child and the circumstances you may need to add information like, “That means Grandma’s body stopped working” or “We can no longer see or visit her.”
As adults, we take knowledge about why death occurs for granted. Children, however, don’t know the biological processes. Learning Grandma is to be buried in a coffin or cremated might raise additional concerns like “How will Grandma breathe?” or “Will it [cremation] hurt her?” That’s why it’s important to add details about death like “Grandma no longer needs food or air and she can no longer feel pain.”
At this age, children understand the finality of death. They associate death with causal events like vital body parts no longer working. Accordingly, gentle but honest explanations are best. “As you know, Grandma was very sick. Her body stopped working, and she died today in the hospital.”
Most teens grasp death and the circumstances leading up to it. Therefore, the approach to breaking the news of Grandma’s passing depends on additional factors like maturity, personality and temperament.
The direct approach works best. For example, “It saddens me to tell you, Grandma died last night.” Follow the sad news with a hug then ask, “What details about her death would you like to know?” Placing teens in charge of asking the questions is a smart way to assess their reaction to death along with their information and emotional needs.
What do psychologists recommend when helping children to cope with death?
- Avoid ‘sugarcoating’ death.
Children know when parents are lying to protect them. Use the words death, died or dying along with cremation or burial.
- Help children, regardless of age, understand death.
Be guided by their questions as to the level of information given to them. Aim for age-appropriate explanations. Loss and death are a part of the life cycle of all living things. Helping children to understand this builds resilience.
- Encourage children to ask questions about death and loss.
Questions about death from children are an excellent way to gauge how much detail to give. And if you don’t have all the answers, be honest. Explore possible solutions together.
- Create opportunities for children to tell their grief story.
Sometimes children are upset by death, but can’t express how or why. So, be a patient listener. Alternatively, use dolls and toys to act out feelings.
- Promote the understanding that grieving is a process, not an event.
Allow adequate time to grieve. Children often don’t grieve in an orderly or predictable way. Some will need more time than others. Create a time and place for sharing and talking each day.
Children’s books about death
Goodbye Grandma and Goodbye Grandpa offer a modern take on the storybook format. But unlike a fictional story, both books use true-to-life photographs offset with delightful illustrations to show children of all ages what to expect after Grandma or Grandpa dies. But best of all, these books focus on talking, sharing and doing until everyone in the family finds happiness again. Suits ages 4 -12. (more)