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Grandma's Not Here Anymore

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How to talk to your child when you lose a loved one.

Dr. Cara Gardenswartz: Death is one of the hardest topics to bring up with your child, no matter their age. But telling your preschooler that your parent has died adds another challenge -- she is old enough to think about and miss her grandparent, but too young to grasp the permanency of death, while her exploding imagination can ignite fears if not addressed, or addressed inappropriately.

preschooler being consoled by parents

Does my preschooler understand death?
Your preschooler may have had a pet that died (e.g., a goldfish), or have heard the words "dead/died/death" in fairy tales, books, on TV, or in their play (e.g., "you're dead" -- not uncommon in preschool play). But she doesn't understand that death is permanent. She may feel like she did something to cause the death (since she is appropriately in an egocentric stage of development -- in her mind, everything is about her). She can't believe what she doesn't see (she is a "concrete thinker") so she can't "imagine" death -- and may even want to see a dead body to believe it.

If your parent lives close by, there will be a recognizable loss (e.g., Mondays without Grandma). If your parent lives far away, there is nothing concrete (an absence) to reinforce that your parent is dead.

Should I tell my preschooler?
Yes! If we as parents are uncomfortable with death, we are going to be at a loss as to how to help our children deal with death. Adults often say to children, "she passed away," "she's in heaven," or "she went away" as a way of avoiding saying "she died." Since it feels too painful or unknown to us, we try to protect our children from experiencing pain or discomfort.

A different approach: You are not harming your child by telling her that her grandparent died. In fact, your healthy disclosure gives your child an opportunity to have a beneficial and appropriate first experience with death. This will set the stage for healthy coping with many deaths to come.

What should I say?
Keep your explanations simple, say one thing at a time, and repeat it. (Your child needs to hear it a few times to process the information). Here is an example of what you can say and how to answer questions only IF she asks them: "Grandpa died." (Now wait to see what she says.)

What does that mean?
"Grandpa's body stopped working. He can't walk or run, or eat or sleep or see anymore."
Avoid saying that grandpa died because he was sick -- you don't want your child to associate being sick with death. Also try to avoid saying "grandpa went to sleep forever" -- thus avoiding an association between sleep and death.

When will you die? When will I die?
"I will not die until you are all grown up and you have children of your own.* You won't die until even later than that! We are going to live for a very, very long time."

* As you probably know (from my past articles), I am a big proponent of telling the truth. However -- while this may not be true, there is NO reason to put fear into your child that you could die earlier. In fact, I can predict your child will wind up in my therapy office later on if you tell her the full truth about death, at an age when it is not comprehensible.

What will happen to Grandpa?
Your answer will depend on many factors, including your religious or cultural beliefs, but here is a script I like: "There are two parts of a person -- their body and spirit. The body is the part of the person you can touch. Grandpa's body is all done working. He can't walk or see. The other part of a person is their spirit. When you close your eyes and think about Grandpa -- something you did with him, or his smile -- this memory and feeling about him is his spirit, which lives on forever and ever."

So where is Grandpa's body?
"Grandpa's body is in a very special box. It's placed underground and becomes part of the earth."

What if she doesn't ask questions or seem curious, or looks away?
Address the important points that she can understand:
Grandpa died.
You won't see him anymore.
It's no one's fault.
You'll miss him.

Honor the grandparent:

You can teach your child about remembering your parent and honoring their spirit through planting a tree, or lighting candles (which you can do on the anniversary of his death each year), and simply by talking about him together.

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4 comments so far | Post a comment now
Amanda June 2, 2009, 11:57 AM

It’s great to have the words— of exactly what I can say. Thanks Dr G

Anonymous June 2, 2009, 12:20 PM

My dad passed in November of 2007 and my grandmother passed in January of 2008 when my son was 4. He was very close to both of them because he stayed with them both while I worked. This is exactly what I did with him and it worked very well. Being age-appropiately honest with your kids will pay big dividends in the future.

pam keen June 2, 2009, 5:21 PM

Thank you for that!

Marge June 8, 2009, 5:58 PM

This advice on dealing with death in terms of discussing it with your young child is so important and how awesome to have it in advance so that we prepared when the time comes. I did read and save your article on dealing with ‘teens&tweens’ on the subject of death of a parent. The info is so valuable. Unless I missed something, advice has been given on talking to young children and the pre-teens and teens. I’d love more advice on those that fall between the two groups and addressing their questions.

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