How to Explain the Death of A Grandparent to Your Child

To explain the death of a grandparent to your child, you'll need sincerity and empathy. Keep reading to learn all you need to know.
How to Explain the Death of A Grandparent to Your Child
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 05 January, 2023

Grandparents are very special figures in children’s lives. They’re their loving caregivers, their confidants, those who always have a smile and a hug ready for their little beloved grandchildren. Therefore, their departure is one of the most painful experiences for a grandchild. Explaining the death of a grandparent to your child isn’t easy, but there are certain guidelines that can you help manage the situation.

Tips to explain the death of a grandparent to your child

Let’s keep in mind that the death of a grandparent is often the first loss that a child experiences. Moreover, in our society, death’s still a taboo subject, and even adults find it difficult to accept it. Therefore, it’s important to convey to them that it’s a natural event that’s part of life, although this doesn’t mean that it won’t cause us pain. To help your child understand this reality, we can follow certain steps that we’ll explain in detail below.

Take into account their age

This is one of the most important factors to consider because the cognitive development and emotional tools available aren’t the same at all ages. A child under the age of two doesn’t yet fully understand the concept of permanency and will have a more difficult time truly understanding what loss means. As they get older, children are more aware of what death is and what it entails, but the approach will still need to be different.

Younger children will need simpler language and explanations, as well as more emotional support. Adolescents are more capable of managing their emotions, but even in this case, the forms, tone, and words you use can play an important role.

Prepare them as much as possible

Facing the death of a loved one is never easy, but it’s less traumatic for children if we prepare them beforehand. When their grandparent is in poor health, it’s preferable to tell your child and make them aware of the reality.

A mother talking to her daughter about the poor health of their grandparent.
Informing your child that there’s concern about their grandparent’s health is preferable to hiding their deterioration and keeping your little one in a bubble that will burst sooner or later.

Find the right time to break the news

When you go to tell your child about the death of a grandparent, you’ll be in the process of managing your own grief. This may cause you to be in a state of emotional turmoil that’s not conducive to breaking the news appropriately. So, try to find a good time, when you can communicate the news in a composed manner and have a calm conversation.

Choose a quiet place that feels safe for the child and where there are no distractions. Turn off the TV and cell phones and focus on that moment. Likewise, it’s important to choose a time when the child isn’t overly tired, angry, or irritable so that they can process it in a better way. For example, you can also plan in advance who’s going to deliver the news and what words you’re going to use. This will make it easier to react at the time.

Always tell the truth

Sometimes, in an attempt to make the ordeal easier to deal with, we tend to tell children certain “white lies”. Telling them that their grandfather is gone away or that they’re sleeping may soften the initial shock, but it’s not the best option. Especially since these vague phrases don’t communicate the irreversibility of death and can confuse children.

Instead, it’s preferable to communicate that they’ve passed away or even give a short explanation as to why. For example, tell the child that their heart has stopped beating. Having this information will prevent children from filling in the gaps with their imagination or incorrect assumptions.

If you have religious beliefs, you can convey the news from this perspective, as this can bring comfort and strength. Saying “your grandfather has gone to heaven” is an appropriate choice, as it does inform them about the irreversibility of death and helps children to understand what has happened.

Encourage emotional expression

When explaining the death of a grandparent to your child, it’s essential to pay attention to their emotional level. For children, it’s a hard blow, but not everyone will react or express themselves in the same way. Some may cry with despair and others may respond with apparent indifference. Neither attitude is right or wrong. The important thing is to allow them to feel and express themselves in their own way.

In this regard, phrases such as “don’t cry” or “it’s okay” are very invalidating at this time. Even if it hurts and makes us uncomfortable to see our children suffer, the best thing we can do for them is to allow them to feel and accompany that pain. Likewise, we can show our own feelings, as this will help them understand that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief.

A mother comforting her crying toddler.
Allowing the child to participate in the farewell rituals will help them to process the loss better and to feel supported by the family and their loved ones.

Rituals for grieving after explaining the death of a grandparent to your child

Giving the news of the death of a grandparent is only the beginning of an emotional process in which we must accompany our child. It’s important to provide opportunities to talk about it during the days, weeks, and months that follow. Initial indifference may turn to deep grief as they process the news. Questions may arise later on that didn’t come up initially, and we must be willing to answer and welcome their thoughts and emotions.

In addition, it can be good for the child to participate in the farewell rituals and ceremonies, such as the wake, visitation, funeral, or burial. Sometimes we don’t involve them in these moments because they’re considered inappropriate for little ones, but they actually help them process the loss and feel the support of the family and community.

At the same time, it’s beneficial to develop your own rituals at home. For example, creating an album with favorite photos shared with that grandparent, writing a farewell letter, or getting together to remember times spent together can help manage emotions.

Grandparents remain in a child’s heart forever

Ultimately, explaining to children that a loved one has passed away and will no longer be in their lives is a bitter pill to swallow, but if we face it with the necessary tact, empathy, and honesty, we can reduce the impact. Above all, they should know that death doesn’t erase the love shared and that this grandparent will remain with them in their memory and in their heart.

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  • Rivas Bárcena, R. (2010). Duelo y rituales terapéuticos desde la óptica sistémica. Revista Electrónica de Psicología Iztacala11(4).
  • Salgado, A. C. (2014). Revisión de estudios empíricos sobre el impacto de la religión, religiosidad y espiritualidad como factores protectores. Propósitos y representaciones2(1), 121-159.

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