Losing a grandparent can be a difficult thing for a child. And it’s difficult for us as parents, because it means we have also lost a parent (or a father-in-law). And it’s hard to know how to talk to our children about death and how to help them with their grief, especially when we are grieving ourselves.
To start, turn off the television and minimize distractions. Let your child know you have something important to tell him. It may be helpful for both parents to be present when you break the news.
Be straightforward about it. Say something like, “I have some bad news for you. Grandpa died last night.” Don’t use euphemisms like saying Grandpa passed away. Teens might know what that means but younger children probably won’t. Don’t suggest that Grandpa has gone to sleep, because young children take things literally. They will think that Grandpa is just sleeping and will wake up. When they realize he is really dead, they may then be afraid to go to sleep themselves. It’s better to actually use the word “died.”
Be prepared for a variety of reactions from your child. Depending on your child’s age, how close he was to his grandfather, his general temperament, and all sorts of other factors, he may react by being very upset or even angry, or he may not seem to be affected much at all. However your child feels is OK. There is no one “normal” way for your child to feel or respond at this time. If he is upset or cries, let him know it’s OK to be sad. If he doesn’t seem upset or doesn’t cry, don’t imply to him that he should be more upset.
If your child has questions, answer them as simply and matter-of-factly as you can. If Grandpa has been sick for a while and his death was expected, your child probably won’t ask how he died. If the death was sudden and unexpected, your child will probably have questions. Your child may ask if it hurts to die. Obviously the real answer to that question depends on how a person dies, but an answer that does not make death sound scary is probably best.
Be prepared for your child to ask what happens when someone dies. If your child doesn’t ask, though, you don’t need to go into a long explanation. Make sure understand what your child is asking when you hear this question. Does your child mean, do people go to Heaven? Or does your child mean, where is Grandpa’s body now? If your religion tells you that people go to Heaven when they die, then tell your child that. If you don’t believe in an afterlife or aren’t sure, it’s fine to tell your child that you really don’t know. You might want to ask your child what they think happens when someone dies. Your child might be asking because they are afraid something scary happens and he might need some reassurance from you.
Depending on how old your child is, he may want to know what’s going to happen next. For instance, he may want to know if Grandpa is going to be cremated or buried and when the funeral will be. He may want to know what’s going to happen to Grandpa’s stuff. Give your child the information he asks for but don’t give a lot of details if your child is too young or just isn’t interested.
If you are very sad when you tell your child about his grandfather’s death, that’s OK. It’s even OK if you cry. If you are weeping hysterically, that might scare your child, so it is a good idea to gain some composure before you talk to your child. If you cry, just tell your child that you miss Grandpa very much and are very sad.