How have you explained death to a toddler?

Lot’s of books and websites, I’m looking for personal stories.

My granddaughter is 3 and a half - my father has just passed and I am wondering how to explain that great grampa is gone.

I guess it depends on your view points and religious stance. My sister is 3 and my family is Christian. When my uncle died they told her that she wouldn’t see Uncle Fuzzy anymore, that he went to live with God and His Angels. I don’t think there is a wrong way to tell a child of a passing of a family member as long as you aren’t too abrasive and make the story as simplistic as possible. As for my baby sister, she wasn’t as upset about the passing when she was told he was spending his days with God and thankfully pain free.

Tell her whatever you see fit- just realize that, at that age, the permanence of death is something many/most kids can’t quite grasp. When my son was 2 and a half, our dog and his grandmother both died. We explained everything as truthfully and clearly as possible, but it was almost a year before he really grasped that doggie and Grandma weren’t ever coming back.

Since the OP is looking for advice, let’s move this to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

I’m so sorry for your loss. Here’s how we explained things to our then 4 year old:

“Grandpa died. His body wore out, and his spirit didn’t need it anymore. We’ll put Grandpa’s body in the ground so it can feed the grass like Mufasa’s, and we’ll have a funeral. A funeral is a quiet party where people will come and tell stories and think of him and love him and remember how much he loved us. Would you like to help me pick some pictures to put on this poster for the funeral? Did I ever tell you about when Grandpa was supposed to go to the Olympics as a runner? Our country didn’t send people that year because of the war, but…” and so on. Just one more thing in the kid’s day, really.

(Mufasa, of course, being the lion dad from The Lion King, our kiddo’s favorite movie when his great-grandfather died.)

He asked once or twice in the ensuing weeks if we were going to see Grandpa, and I just stuck with things like, “Grandpa died, so we won’t see him anymore. Would you like to hear a story about when you and Grandpa went fishing together?”

I couldn’t really explain “died”. Still can’t, honestly, at least not without making wildly inaccurate and scary metaphors like “sleeping”. So the kid just had to learn from context that died means you don’t see the person again, and with greater age, maturity and a few dead pets he figured out the mechanics himself.

I hope you find the strength and support to get through these difficult moments.

When my husband died, I found it hard to explain things to my nine year old daughter. However, I found grief books to be very helpful and we read some of them over and over again, together and cried together sometimes. I was given a bunch of grief books for children and thiswas one of them. I think it might be appropriate for four year old’s as well. Maybe you can read it together. The Amazon reviews might also help you make a decision.

Hug to you and yours.

PS: I am sorry. I just re-read your post again and you didn’t want book suggestions.

My son is not quite four, and my brother died just a few months ago. He was around, but not a huge part of my son’s life. Like other posters, I went with simple and matter-of-fact.

I explained that Uncle Johnny had died. He asked why. I said he was very very sick, and almost all the time, when we get sick, we get better, but his body was too worn out, and it couldn’t get better. He talks about it every once in a while, and asks the same questions again - I think just to see if the answers are still the same. He actually seems to understand “died,” but we live on a farm and he’s gotten a lot of cycle of life stuff earlier than most kids, I think.

It’s more difficult when it’s someone closer to the child, of course - and matter-of-fact doesn’t mean emotionless. When my father died, my niece was around four. She lived with us, and she adored her grandpa. She was throwing a three-cornered fit one day awhile afterward, and in the middle of it, she burst into tears and yelled, “I MISS MY GRANDPA!!!” I burst into tears right back and said, “I miss him too!” and we sat down on the floor and hugged and bawled together for a long time. It was a pretty good for both of us, actually.

Sorry for the double post.
My humble opinion: First ask her simple questions about what she thinks about death to get an understanding about what she thinks about it. I have worked with children as a counselor in the past and some of them have some preconceptions about death that they have learned from their environmental at a very young age. So based on what she says, take it from there. Keep it simple and say what you feel is best. Answer any questions she might have.
This is a hard one.

A few years ago, my aunt died after a long battle with cancer. I went home for the funeral and when I returned I visited some friends of mine. They apparently had taken this opportunity to explain the concept of death to their four year old daughter because I had this conversation when I visited.

“Your aunt died.”
“Yes, she did.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Thank you.”
“She was sick.”
“Yes, she was.”
“She was really sick.”
“She was really really sick.”
“Yes, that’s right.”

So while I wasn’t there for the original conversation, I feel I know how it went.

The other day, we went to see my dad off, who had gotten a hot air balloon ride as a gift for his 80-eth birthday. As the balloon majestically went straight up into the air, all of us waving on the ground, I thought: “I hope my toddler does not think this is meant when he hears that someone has died and gone to heaven”.

I’m sorry about your father.

My daughter is almost four. She’s seen dead insects and asked about them, and I said they were dead. We all live and then we all die. Just like Pough-chan her older brother and just the same as her grandfather (my father), when she asks why she has two grandmothers but only one grandfather.

My explanation for my little girl, who was not quite two and a half when our dog died, and just over three when her great grandmother died, was that when you get old, your body stops working and you die. When you die, you don’t come back and you can’t move or think or talk. She seems to get it when explained in those concrete terms. Every now and then she asks when it’s going to happen to us, and that’s a hard question to answer.

I’m really sorry for your loss.

Thank you for the kind words and advice.

My wife advised me to keep out of it, but I thought I’d report back on my daughter’s attempt to explain that great-grampa had died…

The first question was “What color?” and the second was “Can we make some Easter eggs?”… We will wait a bit and try again.

Mr. Fred Rogers had some very good advice on that subject here

When his father went to explain to The Kidlet (3yo at the time) that Grandpa Joe wouldn’t be coming back, The Kidlet said “I know, he’s dead like Grandpa Jay. Now they’ll put him in a box and take him away.”

My dad (Grandpa Jay) had been dead for years before the kid was born; he’d seen pictures with dead relatives many times. And a friend’s grandfather had recently died: the friend had spent half a morning explaining about how her grandpa, who had been sick a long time, had gotten sicker and sicker and then he’d died and these men had put him in a box and taken him away. At first the kindergarten teacher had tried to stop it, but then she’d realized it would be worse if she made a big deal out of it, since the kids weren’t upset.

Since Grandpa Joe had been very sick since about the time The Kidlet was born, and he’d been living in their house, and since his grown-ups were the kind of person who don’t understand how and what do kids understand, he’d already known Grandpa Joe was on his way out (even a 3yo could see that he kept getting worse). He was pretty dubious about the incineration part (he knew about cementeries but not about incineration) but eventually decided that it was ok.

Children have an enormous advantage over grownups: they have very few preconceptions; the world is whichever way the world happens to be. They’re much more willing to accept anything life throws at them than us grownups.

First, sorry for the loss of your dad.

But, why is it important that your granddaughter recognize the loss of your dad? Most likely, she will not ever remember him, except from any photos that you have of them together. Many people do not have memories pre age 4.

I wouldn’t push it with her. Small children don’t experience grief in the same way that older kids and adults do.

There is this.

While I know it will be rough on you as parents/people, it may be best just to wait until she brings Grandpa up in conversation, and remind her at that point that he’s passed away and she won’t be seeing him in person any more.

She’s more likely to retain the info if she’s the one who initiated the conversation, but in reality - she’s very unlikely to actually remember/process that concept in a way that WON’T leave you explaining over and over again until she hits 4-5 years old. Kids just don’t grasp much that doesn’t impact them directly.