How To Explain Death To Kids: What To Say When Grandparent Dies

How To Explain Death To Kids: What To Say When Grandparent Dies
·4 min read

The loss of a grandparent can be a very traumatic time for every family, but especially for kids who might not fully understand what is happening around them.

The world is mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, who is survived by eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. For most families, the loss of a grandparent is much more private, but no less momentous for loved ones.

Children as young as 2 can detect when there is a shift in a family's dynamic, according to Dr. Shannon Curry, clinical psychologist and director of the Curry Psychology Group in Orange County, California.

"A child’s ability to cope with and understand the death of a loved one depends significantly on how clearly and calmly their parent presents the news," Curry told TODAY Parents.

She continued, “As long as you’re not overwhelmed by emotion, allowing your child to see the reality of your sadness can be an important teaching opportunity about emotional awareness and coping, while also preparing them for the grief they may witness among family members in the coming days, weeks and months.”

Related story: The grieving brain: How your mind deals with a loved one’s death and how to heal

How to explain death to kids

If children seem initially worried by a parent's sadness, Curry suggested naming the emotion and focusing on the positive aspects.

She shared this example of what to say: “Mommy is sad right now and I’m crying because after I cry I feel a lot better.”

When explaining death to kids, be as specific as possible to prevent any potential misunderstanding. (Justin Paget / Getty Images)
When explaining death to kids, be as specific as possible to prevent any potential misunderstanding. (Justin Paget / Getty Images)

Curry explained that most parents worry about what they should and shouldn’t say about a loved one’s death. She told TODAY that parents should be honest, clear and succinct.

“Regardless of your child’s age, you’ll want to set the stage for an important conversation by asking them to stop whatever it is that they’re doing and come sit down with you," Curry said.

Related story: This is what it’s like to live with prolonged grief disorder

Tips to help parents explain the loss of a grandparent to kids

1. Speak slowly

“We tend to speak quickly when talking about difficult topics,” Curry said. “This can be especially problematic when talking to a young child about death since they will have a harder time understanding and remembering new concepts when they’re feeling strong emotions. Slow down your speech until it feels strange and pause for three to five seconds between sentences, allowing them time to take in the information.”

2. Answer questions honestly

Young children think in concrete, literal terms.

“Well-intentioned attempts to explain death to children using euphemisms like ‘going to sleep,’ ‘passing away’ or ‘losing someone’ can confuse and scare little ones who may not be able to make sense out of why going to sleep has suddenly made everyone so sad,” Curry explained.

Related story: More than 200,000 US children have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID

3. Use age-appropriate language

Be as specific as possible to prevent any potential misunderstanding.

Curry shared the following example as a guide:

“Grandpa Joe was at the hospital because he was very sick. The doctors tried as hard as they could to make him better, but his sickness got so bad that it made it very hard for Grandpa to breathe. The doctors tried to help him breathe but they weren’t able to and when he stopped breathing he died.”

4. Address fear

Learning about a grandparent's death may cause a child to become preoccupied with fear that death will take their parents as well.

“Here again, an honest and yet reassuring response is key,” Curry said. “Incorporating words like ‘I expect,’ ‘most’ and ‘usually’ can help guide you. For instance, you might tell your child that most people do not die until they are very old.”

As is true for adults, Curry reminds parents there is no right or wrong way for children to grieve.

“By approaching your child’s grief process with the same openness and acceptance that you brought to the topic of death, you can help them to understand these experiences as inevitable aspects of life and ones that they can manage while looking forward to the future," she said.

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