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How Do I Explain Death to a Two Year Old?

My daughter will be three in December. We have recently learned that her godfather with whom we have a close relationship has terminal cancer. He was given a year if chemo works, but after 6 weeks of chemo we learned today that it was not working and he may only have a few months left. When our cat passed away a few months ago, I tried to explain, but she was confused as to what I was trying to say that I ended up telling her that her cat had moved to a new place to be with her cat family. She accepted that because we have out of state family and is okay with that idea. Should I just wait until it happens or try to prepare her in advance to make it easier. I have no idea what to say since I couldn't even get her to understand about her cat. We are so close to our friend (her godfather) and his wife and their four year old son that I can't even begin to take this in myself. I'm numb.

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What can I do next?

So What Happened?™

I am so overwhelmed with all of this, but I wanted to let you all know that I have read all of your wonderful responses. I realize now, from reading the responses that we can get through this and want to thank you for helping me to realize that. I know that my daughter probably won't be affected as deeply as we are/will be and the best approach is to keep it simple. I think that I'll let her know that her godfather is sick and when the time comes, we'll use the "moved to Heaven" approach. Thank you!

More Answers

Hi K.,
Death is a hard concept to explain to kids, especially young ones. I am a play therapist and some of the best ways I encourage parents to talk to their kids about death is through books. There are many, many books that are about death that you can read to your child. Then after you read the story together, you can tell them that the character "Red" is like you Godfather....he is sick.". Often, the best way is just to ask if she has any questions for you. Kids around the age of 2 and 1/2 don't really comprehend death like older kids do or like we do, so an full explaination can be scary or just really not necessary. I added a list of some books about death for preschool kiddos..you can also do a search on the internet to get some other good literature for young children. I hope this helps and I am sorry to hear about your daughter's Godfather. Cancer is such a terrible disease and is a difficult time for families. I pray the time you have left is precious.
(*there are also grief centers in the Ft. Worth area if you would like to check those out too)

Here are the books:
Brown, Laurie Krasny and Marc Brown. When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death.

This book explains death in a way that pre-school children can understand.

Bunting, E. The Happy Funeral. New York: Harper and Row.

This is an exceptionally interesting book about a little girl who participates in the rituals of her grandfather's funeral.

Clifton, Lucille (1988). Everett Anderson's Goodbye. Reading Rainbow.
An African-American boy copes with the death of his father.

Grollman, Earl A. (1990). Talking About Death. Boston: Beacon Press.

This is a most practical guide for parents and other adults who are faced with explaining death to a child while at the same time often struggling with their own feelings about death. It addresses many questions children may ask and provides suggestions for responding, keeping in mind the developmental age of the child and the unique circumstances of the individual loss. It provides read-along passages for children whose parents who may need some help finding the words to express their responses.

This book would be most helpful if read by parents first, before using the read along passages, as the author is sensitive to the grief process of the adults as they help their children cope with their own thoughts and feelings about death.

Earl A. Grollman has written many excellent books about death.

Hickman, M.W. (1984). Last Week My Brother Anthony Died. Abington Press.

A poignant, touching story told through the eyes of a girl whose infant brother died of congenital heart disease. The family minister is sensitive and helpful and the story ends on an upbeat note.

Mellonie, Bryan and Robert Ingpen (1983). Lifetimes. Bantum Books.
This is a simply written and informative book about the life cycles of all living things. It tells about beginnings (birth) and endings (death) with living in between as natural and inevitable. It is a beautiful book for parents and young children to read and discuss together. It describes different lifetimes for different living things as well as lifetimes that are shortened due to unusual circumstances.

Parker, Marjorie Blain. Illustrator: Janet Wilson (2002). Jasper's Day. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press.

This is a beautiful book about a terminally ill dog who has been part of a
loving family. As the dog's pain becomes less amenable to medication, the
family makes a difficult decision and plans how they will spend Jasper's
last day before bringing him to the vet.

The unity of the family and its relationship to the pet who has given them
such pleasure is told poignantly but straightforwardly as they are brought
together at the final goodbye.

Powell, E. Sandy (1990). Geranium Morning. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.

This is a rather confusing story about a little boy whose father dies in a car accident while going to buy geraniums to grow on his porch. While the boy is dealing with his loss, he befriends a girl whose mother is dying. After some initial difficulties they become good friends and help each other to deal with loss.

I found this story to be contrived and complicated. The language was far more sophisticated than one would expect from children ages 10-11. The story's only saving grace was the message that we need the help of others in dealing with loss.

Shook-Hazen, B. (1985). Why Did Grandpa Die? Racine, WI: Western Publishing Co.

A little girl's reaction to the death of her grandfather makes for a compelling story. There is age appropriate confusion, bewilderment and boredom with the mourning rituals. This book is good because there is a consistent honesty in the child's feelings.

Tiffault, B. (1992). A Quilt for Elizabeth. Omaha, NE: Centering Corporation.

This is a beautiful story about a little girl whose father gets sick and dies. After a while the girl and her grandmother decide to make a quilt from her father's garments. This book is highly recommended because it deals with the loss and mourning in a highly creative manner.

Vigna, Judith (1991). Saying Goodbye to Daddy. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Co.

This is an excellent book about a kindergarten girl whose father dies in a car accident. She has a difficult time coming to terms with the loss. She uses denial and avoidance to diminish the pain of the loss. However, the reality of the funeral confronts her with what she is missing. Her mother and grandfather are there to help her with the confusion and denial. Because she goes through a range of emotions, this books is highly recommended.

1 mom found this helpful

My son was three when my mom was killed in a motorcycle accident, so I had to explain death to him unexpectedly. We have talked about it over the years and he seems to understand the concept, but he never cried or did the "typical" grief things. He talks about his Nana and says he misses her and sleeps every night with a quilt she made for him.

To help him understand the death, I took him to the funeral with us. We spent some time beforehand talking about it and I had him draw a picture for her and place it in the casket. I let him see me cry (I am crying now) and explained why I was sad. I also explained why she died (she wasn't taking care of herself and wasn't wearing a helmet) and when he asks about other family members dying, we talk about taking care of our bodies and getting old and how the bodies finally wear out (like old clothes or toys). Then we talk about where the soul goes when the body can't hold it anymore.

I got some really good books to help me with this. The first was for me. It's called "When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses" by John W. James and Russell Friedman.

The other books are for kids to read (but I think they are also cathartic for the adults who read them to the kids. One is "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages" by Leo Buscaglia. Another is "Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children" by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. Finally, there's "What's Heaven?" by Maria Shriver.

One of the things that I also did was go to a grief support group, offered free at my local hospital. I think that a time of grieving is important and to let your child in on your emotions -- both sad for the death and glad for their life.

My heart goes out to you. Hugs to you and your little girl.

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Maria Shriver has written a book about dying and how to help young children deal with it as well as numerous other authors. My thoughts are with you, it is a difficult thing to face, particularly leaving a wife and young child. I agree, tell your daughter that her godfather is ill. Although young, she will notice what will happen to him physically and will certainly be exposed to the grieving of his wife and son. If she somehow asks if he might die, then you answer the question but otherwise, deal with that when the time comes.

When he does pass, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, one thing you can tell a child this age is that X is in a place where he is no longer suffering. He doesn't hurt, he doesn't feel badly and while he wishes he could have stayed with his family, sometimes that is just not possible.

One place where you need to be careful is if this leads to questions about your possible death. It is instinct to reassure your child that nothing will happen to you until she is grown with children of her own but that simply is not true. I contracted a strain of pneumonia that nearly killed me two years ago. It was a chilling experience for them and me, with children who were 7, 11, and 14 at the time, realizing that they were almost left without a mother.

I think if I had ever told them unequivocally that nothing would happen to me, things would have been more difficult. We have a big family, they are not strangers to funerals so they knew things happen, accidents, illness. It is difficult at that young an age to really, really recognize that your rock may not always be there. You know your child and what she will understand. Try to anticipate the questions and have decent answers and as others have noted, keep it simple, answer questions and leave it at that.

1 mom found this helpful


I'm sorry to hear about your loss. I've had a lot of death in my family. I lost my Dad last year. The best thing I did for myself was to be a part of a grief support group. I first started out at our church and they also recommend a Hospice Grief Support Group. I went to the evening grief support groups for about 6 weeks. It really helped me. If you need more time in the group, you can come back for other sessions. This may be a lot of help to you, as you could ask questions and learn how to help your child at home. I can get the name of the Hopsice I went to (it is in Fort Worth) if you would like more info on the groups.

I learned about a book through the church we used to go to and it is great for explaining daeth to Young Children. Here's the name of it: Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney. It is a small book, however it isn't a board book. It might be a little long for a 2 year old. I think a 4-5 year old it would be better for them to understand and keep their attention. Might be good to get it for the future and any deaths in the family later on. We are foster parents and we've had foster kids in our home and I read the book a couple of times to the kids. I also shared it with my Mom who shared it with her Great-Granddaughter (she lost her Mom, due to overdose of drugs/alcohol/depression). I think books would be the best way for a child to deal with that. Kids love to draw and paint, that would be healthy for her to do as well. You could find books that explain older people and that they get sick and need more help,etc... I liked the suggestion of going to nursing homes, that would give you more of a chance to talk about health issues, the elderly, death,etc... Start preparing her with his condition- cancer. It is hard explaining cancer to a child. Have you contacted the American Cancer Society and asked them if they have any suggestions about telling children about cancer? If you haven't, try that and see what they have to say. The library would be another resource for finding books about the elderly and their health/cancer and death. If you belong to a church, churches also have libraries, so you can check with your church as well. You might find comfort in reaching out to your Minister, maybe Children's Minister if your church has a children's minister. They have a lot of training and deal a lot with families, hospitals and dealing with grief. Another resource is calling Cook's Children's Hospital or Harris Methodist Hospital and talking with the Chaplains there. Cook's might actually have a library for kids with serious medical issues and be able to assist you the best. You might want to go to Cook's and talk with a Chaplain there. Have you searched online for any type of cancer support groups, there may be some support groups for family members who are dealing with cancer? I know when I lost my dog last year, I went online and found a support group for people who had lost a pet. I found it comforting, as I had a hard time sleeping the first few nights. There might be a support group online that helps kids to deal with death.

The Warm Place I've heard deals with children who has lost their Mom or Dad or a Guardian/Grandparent. They provide a place for them to play, color, paint and work out their grief. Children's work is their play, so you can tell a lot by the way a child plays, what their feelings are,etc... You might try calling them or checking their website out and see if they can help you or give you some literature.

I hope this helps you and I'll keep you and your family, in my prayers. God Bless

1 mom found this helpful

SOrry to hear of the impending loss of your friend and loved one. I honestly doubt that your daughter will understand. Children that age don't have a clear understanding of the abstract like death. I would just tell her he went to live with God and his family in heaven and leave it at that. IF she gets older and asks or sees pictures or continues to be with his family, then I would gently begin by expounding on that truth appropriate for her age and understanding.
God Bless you and your family,

Hello K.. I am so sorry this is happening to you and your family. My father died 1 and 1/2 years ago and I, still, once a week have to take an hour and cry. My 7 year old son does the same once a month. He also had a 7 year old dog (his BFF)die a month later. My mother bought an incredible children's book that I reccomend for all ages. It is called "What is Heaven Like?" by Beverly Lewis. He will bring it to me occasionally and that is when I know he needs a cry.It is about a little boy and his sister that loses a grandpa and all the questions that come up. Then, shows how it affects their everyday life. You can, of course, change the name of grandpa to what is needed. My son understands more than I ever did at his age and still says hello and I love you to Poppa and Bailey, the dog, everytime he prays. I will keep you and your family in my prayers for the next few months!!!

I really feel the best thing to do is treat her like she knows what you're talking about. You might not feel like she doesn't understand. Telling her one thing - that the cat died, then telling her another - that it moved on to be with its family, I don't feel is the best or smartest thing to do, because then you're confusing her, and then setting her up for "failure" (with understanding death).

She's young, you don't have to go into everything, just that so and so died, or a pet or plant, whatever the circumstance calls for.

Kids are so much smarter and capable than we ever give them credit for. (I know some people think I'm crazy.)

I think, personally, you should let her know what's going on, that he's really sick, and that she should spend what time HE has left [bonding] with him, and explain its because he's not going to be here much longer.

We have lost many people in our family, both Grandpa's and two of my husbands siblings. None of these people were a daily figure in our lives, so that made it slightly easier to explain to our kids, but yes they are in Heaven where they are happy and no sick or hurt has really worked for our boys. They take it very matter of factly. So don't be hurt if your daughter starts telling people "my "uncle" just went to heaven, we'll miss him but he's happy" in the same way she would tell someone she just got a new toy.
My oldest (6 this week) has begun over the last week in his prayers asking The Father to " tell grandpa G and grandpa M and aunt and uncle hellow for me" it is a bitter sweet thing, but I am glad he does it, I think it gives him peace to still be able to "talk" to them.
Good luck thru this hard time, and just listen, to your friend, to the wife, to your husband, and your daughter, just love and listen it's all we can do at times like this.

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