Help Children Deal With the Death of a Grandparent

Young girl getting a big cuddle from her mum
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Many times the death of a grandparent is a child's first real brush with mortality. When a grandparent dies, kids may have a variety of responses. Some of their reactions come immediately, while others will show up later.

Dealing with loss can be difficult, but at the same time, a child can grow in maturity and understanding through this experience. Learn more about how to support a child who is grieving the loss of a grandparent.

What to Do When a Grandparent Dies

Every child dealing with death needs the support of understanding adults. The vast majority of children will experience the death of someone close to them at some point in their childhood. Talking about death and reassuring your children can help them process what has happened.

Talk to Your Child About Death

After a grandparent dies, your child may have lots of questions. How you respond to questions will vary depending on your child's age and maturity level. Be honest and direct, but keep it brief, especially if your kids are younger. Offering a child space to express their grief is often more important than saying lots of words.

Sometimes kids will ask the same questions over and over. When this happens, be patient and consistent with answers. Keep in mind that you do not need to provide all the answers. If you don't know, it's OK to acknowledge that.

Don’t confuse young ones by using euphemisms for death such as "rest" or "sleep." These words may make a child think that their grandparent will eventually come back or wake up. Help your child understand that death is final.

Research has found that in order for children to understand and process death they need to understand irreversibility, finality, causality, and universality. Most kids grasp those concepts between the ages of 5 and 7.

Address Your Child's Fears

Children who are dealing with the death of a loved one often logically wonder if they will lose other people they love. When a child loses a grandparent, they may anticipate that they will lose their other grandparents as well. Saying something simple such as, "I expect Grandpa to be here for a long time" is the best solution in this situation.

If a grandparent died as a result of illness, your child may be afraid of sickness in general. They may wonder if they will also get sick and die. So tread carefully around associating death with sickness. Remind your child that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and healthy.

Similarly, be careful about saying that someone died because they were old. Your child may become fearful of losing other older people in their lives. When possible, present a positive picture of aging to your child. Often, especially with younger children, a simple statement that a person's body stopped working and couldn't be fixed is a sufficient explanation for why someone died.

Reassure Your Child

After the death of a grandparent, your child will need reassurance. Guilt often accompanies feelings about death, so reassure your child that the loss of their grandparent is not their fault. Sometimes kids will view death as some form of punishment. Be sure to reassure your child that death is not a consequence, but rather a part of life.

Listen carefully not only to what your child says, but how they say it. Their tone can offer clues to what is going on inside.

Remember the Lost Grandparent

Don't be afraid to talk about the deceased grandparent. Your child is thinking about them and it will likely feel good to be able to talk about and remember them with you. Share memories, draw pictures, and discuss some of the things you miss about them with your child.

Some children find comfort in the days following a death by looking at or even carrying around pictures of the loved one. A special toy or memento associated with the deceased can also be comforting. The child’s teachers or caregivers should be told about the death. A child going through the grief process may become anxious and clingy or angry and rebellious.

Funerals and Other Services

Opinions are divided over whether young children should attend funerals. Children need to be with their families during the grief process, but funerals can be overwhelming for young children. Sometimes attending a wake or visitation can be an acceptable substitute for attending the actual funeral.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends allowing children to attend and participate in funerals, wakes, or memorial services to the extent a child wishes.

If your child is going to attend a service, go over what will happen so that they will be prepared. If your child is going to attend a visitation or service with an open casket, let them decide whether they want to view the body. If so, arrange for it to be in the company of a calm adult. Prepare your child for the appearance of the body, saying that because the body is no longer working, it does not look the same. Allowing a child to place a picture or letter in the casket can be comforting.

If you have a lot of responsibilities at the funeral or anticipate being very preoccupied, be sure to designate another trusted adult to be with and support your child during and after the funeral. It's important for your child to have an adult who can answer their questions or just hold their hand.

Prepare your child for the fact that some people at the service will be crying, but others may be laughing and talking, and that is their way of remembering the deceased.

The Role of Religion

If a child has been raised in a religious household, parents will probably put death into a religious context. Kids for whom religion is already an existing part of their life may find comfort in religious beliefs and traditions as they grieve.

If your family is not religious and you have not put death in such a context, you probably will not want others to do so with your children, either. Introducing new ideas about religion and the afterlife at such a traumatic time can be more confusing than consoling.

The Grief Process After Losing a Grandparent

Allow your child to grieve, but keep in mind that for some children, real grief may be delayed. Kids have varying timelines and reactions to death.

Kids may complain of physical symptoms such as a headache or stomachache or have trouble concentrating in school. These behavioral changes will probably go away in a matter of weeks. If they do not, they may need to talk to a counselor. It's important not to let a taboo arise around the topic of the deceased person.

Reading age-appropriate books about death may be helpful for some kids. Options include "The Goodbye Book" by Todd Parr, "Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs" by Tomie dePaola, "Grandpa’s Stories" by Joseph Coelho, "Ida Always" by Caron Levis, and "When You Trap a Tiger" by Tae Keller.

Don't be afraid to mention the person's name and share an occasional memory of them. This practice reinforces the concept that dying is a natural part of living rather than being something supernatural and scary.

Also, mentioning the name of the deceased provides an opening for your child to talk about death, which can be healing. As time goes by, concentrate on providing your child with a stress-free environment. Active play, humorous games, and hanging out with family and friends may help. Unconditional love is the best soother of all.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I say to a child when a grandparent dies?

Tell your child that you are sorry for their loss and affirm their sadness. Honestly answer their questions, but keep it simple and brief.

It's also OK to share your own feelings with your child. For example, you can tell them that you miss grandma, too. Sharing not only helps your child feel less alone, it allows them to see you modeling what it looks like to grieve and also carry on.

How should you comfort a child when their grandparent dies?

The best thing you can do for a child whose grandparent has died is to be there and offer space for them to talk and grieve. Your child may be feeling anxious or fearful about death—they may worry that other people they love will also die or that they will die. Reassure your child that death is not contagious and that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and healthy.

What is the normal grieving process for a child when a grandparent dies?

Kids who are grieving may exhibit certain behaviors for a period of time. Commonly, kids will be extra clingy, exhibit developmental regression, fall behind in school, sleep poorly, have trouble concentrating, be anxious, struggle with feelings of abandonment, act out, feel guilty, and act out death in their pretend play.

Most of the time, these behaviors are normal and resolve on their own over time. However, if they persist, or if your child excessively imitates the dead person, believes they are talking to or seeing the dead person, or suggests they want to join the dead person, they may require professional support.

How can I help a toddler cope with losing a grandparent?

Toddlers do best with very simple and brief explanations and answers to their questions. Toddlers may repeat questions over and over, so patience and consistency is important. Rituals like carrying a photo of their loved one, talking about special memories or favorite things about the person they love, and reading age-appropriate books about death and dying can be especially helpful for toddlers who are processing death.

How can I prepare for the death of a grandparent?

Talking proactively about death can help kids feel prepared for the inevitable loss. It also helps kids feel safer and more secure. It's important to be honest and tell your kids the truth. In the case of impending death, it's all the more important to be open with your children. Of course, you do not need to layout graphic details—simply stating that grandma or grandpa's body is going to stop working soon is a good explanation to offer younger kids.

Let your kids know what they can expect in the coming days and weeks. If there is a funeral, wake, or memorial service, tell them what that will be like and why it is done. Explain how those rituals help people say goodbye to the ones they love when they die and leave lots of space for questions.

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  2. American Psychological Association (APA). How to talk to children about difficult news. Updated January 14, 2021. 

  3. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Grief and children. Published 2018.