39 answers

Explaining Death to a Three Year Old

My son just turned three and we are faced with the decision on how to explain that his great grandmother will be passing away very soon. He has been very close to her since birth and he loves her very much. He has been up to the hospital several times since she has been sick but we were just given the horrible news that she only has a few days to live. We are religious and believe in life after death but I am not sure how to explain the concept of heaven to him. I know he will want to go there and see her. I am planning on taking him to the hospital today, not really for him to say goodbye (because I don't think he would understand that) but more for him to see her one more time. She isn't very conscious due to the morphine. I am just worried that at the funeral when he looks into her casket that he will try to "wake" her up. Any suggestions would be so helpful.

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I think kids understand more about Heaven than we do. Explain that she is going there, and she'll be very happy. Tell him how she'll never get sick or have limitations. Let him know that we all will go there when Heavenly Father is ready to take us home, and if we've lived a good life.

Leo Busgaglia has a great book called " Fall of Freddie the Leaf" It explains death and Life cycles in a kid story fashion. S.

I am so sorry you have to go through this. My children were young when my grandma passed away. I got the book by Maria Shriver "What is Heaven?"
It's a very good book for kids-and I still have it and read it to my son when my father passed away last year. It's not based on one religion or one set of views-so it's great for anybody.
Good luck, and again I'm sorry.

More Answers

I am sorry to hear about your grandmother. My grandmother passed when my daughter was three also. I really do not think a child of that age can grasp the concept of dying and heaven. We kept it very simple, and then as she's gotten older we expand on it. We just told her that GG went to heaven. For a year, that was good enough until she started asking if we could go visit her in heaven. She was older, so I could explain more. I just hope you can find a way, with your own religious beliefs, to keep it simple and satisfactory for your daughter. I know around the age of 4, a lot of kids get a huge fear of death, so if she knows too much she may develop a fear that you or your husband are going to die too.
For my sister and I (she had a 4 year old at the time of our grandmother's death) we chose to not take them to the funeral. We felt it was not appropriate to take a small child even thought it was close family. We just thought that we wanted all the memories that our daughters had of their GG to be good, not scary. And, I do think there is a chance your child could be scared at a funeral. My sister took her daughter to the visitation, though, because the atmosphere was very calm and more informal. That's just something to think about as your prepare for some tough days ahead.
P.S. There is a wonderful poem that was read at my grandmother's funeral that was really fitting since she died on 12/12. For Christmas, I found an ornament that could hold a piece of paper, and put the poem on it. I gave it to my mom and said it was from grandma. It gave us all so much comfort through the first holiday without her. I hope it will for you and your family as well:

I'm Spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this Year

I see the countless Christmas trees,
Around the world below.
With tiny lights, like heaven's stars,
Reflecting on the snow.

The sight is so spectacular,
Please wipe away that tear.
For I'm spending Christmas,
With Jesus Christ this year.

I hear the many Christmas songs,
That people hold so dear.
But the sounds of music can't compare,
With the Christmas choir up here.

For I have no words to tell you,
The joy their voices bring.
For it is beyond description,
To hear the angels sing.

I can't tell you of the splendor,
Or the peace here in this place.
Can you just imagine Christmas,
With our Savior, face to face?

I'll ask Him to light your spirit,
As I tell Him of your love.
So then pray one for another,
As I lift your eyes above.

Please let your hearts be joyful,
And let your spirit sing.
For I'm Spending Christmas in Heaven,
And I'm walking with the King.

~© Wanda Bencke ~

3 moms found this helpful

I'm not sure what's best for a 3 year-old...but I remember an image from long ago that I really loved. (Probably for older kids as I think about it.)
When you put your hand in a leather glove and move it around, a child knows it is you working the glove. When you take it off, it still holds the shape and looks like you. But you are not there any more...just the glove.
Prayers for you too in this difficult time.

1 mom found this helpful

My condolences to you and your family regarding your grandmother too.
I personally am not certain about taking a 3 year old to a funeral. Just because it can stir up some pretty confusing and scary thoughts of his grandma going into the ground.
When they are older of course taking them makes sense for closure.
Be honest with him, she got very sick and the Drs were not able to fix her. Explain she had a good long life and that very rarely does anyone get sick and die. If you are religious you can explain God takes away those that are very sick to give them a better life in heaven.
I explain heaven to my kids as a place of peace, where people are happy and healthy and God can oversee them. I told them that God takes people/pets and makes them angels to help us down here on earth. Whether they absorbed it all or completely understood I am not certain. It did help them a lot to be honest and have some clear rationalizing for the death of their pet though and they accepted it well.

Let him ask questions according to what thoughts are going on in his head. It may come out at bizarre times.
I can say my kids were 16 mos and 3 1/2 when our dog died. It was hard to explain to my youngest but with my older one I told her the same scenario with God and told her that we just couldn't fix our dog to where she would be happy here on earth.
There were questions probably for a year later on, just pieces popping up as it came into their minds. My son even asked questions when he was more aware around three.

When I was 11, my little brother died. He was 8. It was very hard on me to understand, I had a lot of anger because nobody would talk to me about it. I remember even at the age of 11 the funeral being the worst of it all. It took me years before I was ready to ask questions again and get them answered so I had peace.

At 3 a child won't remember a lot later on. I personally think just whatever way you can explain it to him so he doesn't have fear of being sick and dying or being put into the ground. Never say "sleeping" or God took her persay but telling him that sometimes people's bodies when they are older don't recover like when they are younger.
I have no easy answer for you. Just honesty at his level and answer any and all questions.

My heart goes out to you. Right before my son turned three his beloved Papa tragically passed away in a car accident; although he was also diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. My son was not aware of the brain tumor -- mostly because we didn't know timing and had not really come to grips with the idea -- regardless we had to tell my son and it was the MOST heartbreaking thing I've ever had to do in my life. Oddly enough my son had been asking about death (my mom's cat had passed away about a year prior)so the concept was not new to him but he sort of understood and as time has gone by he understands. Much of what you choose to tell your child will depend on your belief system. My son went ot the memorial service, he understood it was a time to say goodbye and celebrate Papa's life. He didn't cry or talk about it for months but eventually he did. I'd say the most important thing is for you to not hide your own grief (when it happens) and to rememember the good things. I still plan to create an album of photos of papa for James to have. When they do ask questions answer them as honestly has you can and encourage them that it's okay to be sad and to miss them.

This month is Papa's birthday month.. he LOVED his birthday and we are having a birthday dinner for him.

Good luck!

My father-in-law passed away at home last year. He had been in hospice care ,at home, and we spent nearly a week at their home before he passed. Our children were in and out of the room the whole time. My second son was almost two at the time and was not frightened in the least, not while he was living nor after he passed. In fact he said the biggest and loudest good-bye that touched everyone else in a very emotional and profound manner. If your son understands good-bye let him know it is time to say that to his grandmother and, although it will be a while until you see her again, she will be waiting excitedly for that day. We also took our son to the funeral as well as the interment. He was never frightened of anything that was going on. Your son will feed off of the emotions that the adults are showing which is why you should explain to him why people are sad and why we practice what we do when people have passed away. Children can comprehend more than we give them credit for, just not in the same way that we do. Be honest with him about what is happening and what will happen soon. Knowledge will keep the fear away, lack of knowledge may bring on fear. Missing his grandmother is a natural feeling that he should be allowed to feel. If we are allowed to feel these feelings as children we are better prepared and able to deal with them as adults.

I'm very sorry to hear about your grandma's death. I just lost my 99 year old Grandmother last december, and it was very sad or both me and my boys. I told them that she was very, very old, and that her body stopped working properly. I said that although we would miss her, she would be in heaven where her body would work just fine again.

I really liked the analogy another poster mentioned about the seasonal flowers, and that sounds like a good idea. My only other suggestion is that you not allow your son to see the body - that is too traumatic for many adults, much less a young child. Plus, is that the last picture of her that you want him to have in his mind? Also, it is not always a good idea to ask children to sit through adult things (like a funeral) would it be better for him if you and your husband created a special good-bye ceremony in your back yard? Just a thought. Hang in there!

There a books out there just for small ones to understand about death. I would go to the library and search or ask when you go. Your little one will suprise you. They will make you laugh when you want to cry because they are so innocent.If you tell him the angels will come and carry you up to heaven when it is time then that is what he sees (he might even draw you a picture). Their minds are so open and their hearts so pure that if you let them be a part of things they will do amazing things. My son was 2 when my dad died and he would say the cutest things about angels and heaven that it made it me wish I could look at things like a child all the time. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Let your little man be the joy and happiness even with sorrow.

B.- I'm so sorry to hear about your grandmother. Death is a very hard concept for adults - how is a child to understand, right?

My daughters best friend died from a terrible accident when she was 5 years old. I did not take her to the funeral but, I did talk to her about it. I explained that sometimes people and animals die. They go to heaven and wait for everyone else. I told her that her friend could play with grandma and our deceased cat until we got there.

She was very quiet for a few days but, than began asking questions and I answered them honestly.

I took my daughter to my grandmother's funeral when she was three- she did not understand what we were doing. She was not upset and it actually kept me from being upset. I would try to explain that there will be sad people saying good-bye to great grandma and talking about how wonderful her life was. Maybe say-someday we will see her again. My daughter does not remember my grandmother or the funeral. I think your child will give you cues- don't push the sadness onto him- three year olds do not understand permanancy.

Best wishes-H.

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