Advice on What to Tell My 4 Yr Old Son About His Dying Grandfather

Updated on January 09, 2012
G.M. asks from Stephenville, TX
13 answers

My dad just has a short time left. My kids are usually only around him every 2-3 months since we live out of state, but we're seeing him every 3-4 weeks now. Should I start talking to him now or what until it happens? He knows he doesn't feel good because we pray for him every night. He's familiar with the cemetery since we visit my mom's grave when we're in town, so he's had that exposure. Also, do you have advice on taking him and my 19 mo. old to the graveside services (the only service my dad wants)? I thought about asking my friend to take them to the car if needed, but it may be disruptive. Any advice would be appreciated.

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answers from Philadelphia on

My dad died when my son was 4 yrs old. He was very close to his grandpa and it was a difficult time for all of us. I wanted to help him to understand what "grandpa died" meant. I came up with an explanation that was simple and one that he could relate to. It is too long to write here, but you can read it on my blog page if you wish. It worked very well for us.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

My 2.5 year-old lost both his great-grandfather and pet rabbit this fall. His great-grandpa (Dedushka) had been in and out of the hospital frequently, and we always said "He's in the hospital now, and the doctors are going to make him feel better". When it became apparent that this might be his last trip to the hospital, however, we started saying that Dedushka was very old and very sick, and that this made all of us sad (so he could understand why everyone was more subdued). My son then said confidently, "The doctors will make him better, though" and I said, "Well, honey, Dedushka is he's probably not going to get better this time." When he did die, I told my son that he "passed away, and we aren't going to see him anymore". I also told him that we were all sad, and that he should give his great grandma a big hug (which he did). My son was quiet when I told him all this, which is what he does when he's thinking, but doesn't really understand. Over the next few weeks, he asked about it several times (Are we going to see Dedushka there? Mama, you're old, are you going to pass away?, etc.). Then, a couple months later, our pet rabbit died. Our son had the same questions, but seemed to understand better and more quickly this time. We do not go to church, so at first I had avoided mention of heaven, but our son got really hung up on where Dedushka and the rabbit were, so eventually I told him that they were in heaven. I didn't describe it at all, but that seemed to make him feel better to have a name of a place. Interestingly, he also said (completely on his own), "then I'll see them in heaven when I pass away". And I just said "yes" to that.

We did not bring him to the graveside service, and I am glad of that. It was very emotional, and I think he might have gotten worried to see everyone crying so much. We did bring him, and his younger brother, to a gathering at his grandparent's house after the service. If you can find someone to watch the kids for the service, I think you'll all feel more comfortable. I'm so sorry that your loss.



answers from Indianapolis on

We haven't dealt with the loss of a close family member yet, but the day before my son's second birthday, I was diagnosed with cancer and went through 5 months of chemo.

We chose to take the approach of being as honest as they would understand. He didn't have any concept of cancer, so we just said that Mommy is really sick. He was old enough to know that every other week, I came back from the doctor and was so tired/sick I slept most of the time. He saw me lose my hair (and actually told me he liked me better without my wig).

We've been very honest in the 15 months since I finished treatment. He's old enough to understand the concept of death.

I don't believe you have to share every detail, but I do think that you can be honest that his grandfather is very sick, and the doctors can't help him recover. I'd explain death in whatever terms your family believes (based upon your faith) and help them understand that even though he won't be around, you have lots of memories to keep him present.

As for your 19 month-old - do what you're comfortable with. Sometimes, in somber situations, a comic event (such as things our kids say) help break up the tension and put a smile on your face.

My only last piece of advice is to let them see the range of emotions you're going through so they understand it's OK to cry when you love someone who's so important and to laugh when you think about all the good times.

I found that I had to be the emotional supporter for a lot of people during my treatment when they didn't know how to be around me, I'd tell them that I really wanted to laugh and that I'd be OK.

Sorry for your family's impending loss. I hope you get through the grieving process smoothly and with many good memories.



answers from Dallas on

I'm sorry to hear about your dad. We just went through this in October with both of my 4 year olds. He was in hospice fir about 1 year before passing. They would ask questions about, why can't grandpa get out of bed. Hospice said to say that as we get old our bodies don't work the same way. We talked about how when grandpa goes to Heavan that he will not have anymore pain. We did not take him to the wake or funeral. The hospice people suggested this to us. They said seeing his body could cause some very scary thoughts and questions. We opted to leave them with a friend. They said seeing mommy and daddy crying and upset is very scary to them. The day afterwards we picked up some balloons and went to the park with our immediate family. The boys wrote special notes to grandpa and attached them to the strings. We then released them to go up to heaven. The boys LOVED doing this. It provided kind of an upper to a very sad situation. Sounds like you have gotten some great advice. I pray for comfort and love for you and your family.



answers from Denver on

We just dealt with this, my step-dad passed away a few months ago. My kids were used to seeing him with grandma all the time. He had Alzheimer's, so of course the kids asked why he didn't talk or eat by himself. I explained that he was sick and wouldn't be getting better . There's nothing dr's could do to fix him, and sometimes that's just the way life is.

I will also say the hospice workers, who are trained to deal with death everyday, and help the survivors, urged me to be very open and honest with the kids -age 3 and 5- about death, what it is, how it happens, etc. Not gory details mind you, just not euphemisms.

My kids watched grandpa pass away -totally not planned I had wanted to shelter them, but he chose the time and there was literally nothing I could do since he passed at home. They watched the morticians come and take him away.

They requested to come along to the memorial service because they wanted to say good-bye too.

It sounds as though you are very open with your kids already, so keep going. I'm so sorry that you have to go through this again, especially after losing your mom. (((hug)))



answers from Dallas on

I found it very hard to explain heaven and dying in a way that my 3 and 4 year-old daughters would understand when their grandmothers passed away in consecutive years. Being a big reader, I turned to books to help me. I found and purchased several, but the one that was the most helpful was The Next Place by Warren Hanson. It is appropriate for any religious beliefs and was actually very helpful to me also. Good luck and God bless.



answers from Seattle on

First let me say, my thoughts and prayers are with you during this tough time.

This past year, both of my remaining grandparents died (only 2 I knew, as the others passed before I was born). My 5 year old was 4 at the time. He knew my grandmother very well, and often went down to visit her when he stayed with my mom (once/month or so). I think my son's reaction and feelings would have been different if my own mother had died, but we explained to him that great grandma had died, and that it meant that he would not see her anymore. She had lung cancer, so we explained to James that dieing meant that she was not in pain any longer, and that she went to a better place.

We had to explain death to James several times because whenever we went down to her house to pack up boxes, he would ask where she was. The best approach I found that worked, was to repeat the same explanations over and over so that he would not get confused by multiple explanations.

Once he clearly understood what had happened, and remembered it, he became obsessed with death (but not in a bad way). He loved to tell people that his great grandma had died, he enjoyed seeing bugs die that had been stepped on (what kid doesn't, right?). He mentioned death so much that I had to explain to his teachers, and a few other people that the obsession was because my grandmother had passed, but it was what I think was a very health reaction.

I chose not to tell James before hand that she was going to die because I was afraid that it might give him nightmares or cause extra anxiety. I do not regret my decision. He did know that she was sick, and every time he visited, we made sure he said goodbye to her. At the very end when it was clear that it was time, we did not allow James to see her because we did not want to scare him.

When it was time for my grandfather's memorial (my grandmother's memorial has not happened yet due to life getting in the way) I left James with my boyfriend because I knew it was not going to be an appropriate thing for him, and I knew that it was likely to be long and boring, where he would most definitely become a disruption and not allow myself or others to grieve properly.

I cannot tell you what is best as far as the funeral is concerned, but I would suggest that perhaps your children are a little young for a funeral. Is there someone that you can leave them with during the funeral? My thought is that it would be a good idea to take them to the graveside so they can see the final resting place, but perhaps not during the service. If you feel you need to have a service with your children involved, perhaps you could do one of your own with just you and your kids where you and your son tell the favorite thing about your dad and what you can do to remember him, like putting special pictures up around the house.

One last thought, if you do want to talk to your kids about this before your dad is gone, is that there are a lot of good books, and probably a few kids shows that deal with the death of a family member that would be helpful to them. I am sure you can get them from your local library. If you need help finding them, just ask the librarian.

I hope this has been helpful and not too long winded.



answers from Amarillo on

We just had to deal with the same thing not to long ago. My grandfather, their great granfather, was very active in my kids lives. I know is hard but you have to prepare them. I told my kids that he was going to live with their great uncle whom they were also fond of. Let your kids know that he will be happier and no longer sick. They can talk to him whenever they feel like they need to and he will always listen. And if they listen hard enough they will know when he is speaking back to them. I think that with children and family being so close to one another that it is understandable if they are disruptive. Their actions are their way of dealing with the situation.



answers from Detroit on

My daughter was 4 when my Mom died . I spoke with a child psycologist and she said not to have her go to the funeral or viewing because it was too difficult for them to understand and they come up with all kinds of things that are not true " Like the girl who would lower her highchair if Grandpa woke up. We did take her to the luncheon after and everyone did have great stories etc.
I was told she would think death at this age is like the person went somewhere and would be back. A little older they think death is contagious so they won't touch anything of the deceased person. My daughter did often ask when is Grammie coming back? even though we told her she would be in heaven forever and then she wanted to go visit her I told her there was a long long line and you can't go until your much older like gramps. I did tell her that Grammie was going to heaven and she should say goodbye before she left on the last day I knew I would let her see my Mom. She did do that and told her to have a nice trip, my Mom thought that was great. Don't wait too long for them to see your Dad . You may also ask your Father what he thinks. that is a wonderful way to open the door for you to have a special talk with your Dad too to say Goodbye. Its the most difficult thing I have done in my life but gives me great peace that I did that. My sister is till mad at herself for not saying goodbye 7 years later. Peace and comfort to you and your family



answers from Dallas on

Everything depends on what you and your child are comfortable with. Let your son lead the way - if he asks questions, answer them. If there's information he needs to know, tell him the basics, and then his questions will let you know how much details to give. If you're not sure how much to tell him, ask him what he thinks first before answering. Children often have a greater understanding than we think. In regards to the services, it depends on what you think your kids can handle. Will it be closed or open casket? Will your emotions or others' close to the kids be too much for them to handle? Can your children stand or sit quietly for a period of time? Children can sense when we're upset, so it's important to involve your son in the goodbye and grieving process. By helping him understand that though saying goodbye and dying are sad they are natural part of life, it will be a lot less scary for him. My oldest is 5 and has attended 5 funerals with me and taken 2 trips to say goodbye to dying relatives. I would take him with him again. My 3 year old, however, may or may not come to the next funeral because he's energetic and loud and doesn't understand how his behavior affects others. Whatever you decide, your father will understand.



answers from St. Louis on

My great-grandfather died when I was 7 and my little sister was 4. We didn't know how sick he was, and I don't think my parents did a good job of explaining death. I do distinctly remember seeing him in his coffin, telling him to wake up, and telling him that if he woke up he could lower my chair to the floor and I wouldn't complain. (I hated when he did that!)

Explain as best you can. I know there are some books out there that I've seen in the past that can help, although I can't think of any off the top of my head. It was really good for me and my sisters to go to his graveside service so we could see that he wasn't coming back. It really gave a sense of closure. I think if your little ones start acting up, it's appropriate to ask a friend to take them to the car, or on a walk. If you think you'll be crying (as I know I would), I know both my kids would want to be on my lap trying to help me. If you can, let your kids see you grieve and let them comfort you. They are amazing at that.


answers from Dallas on

Here is a very simple answer IF your 4 yr old asks.

God puts us all on this earth to do a special job. Once our jobs are finished he calls us back to heaven to be with him. Grandpa' job was finished so he has gone back to Heaven to be with God.



answers from Dallas on

I would second the person who mentioned Hospice. They have some wonderful literature or books or can suggest ones for you. Some of them even have support groups for family members if you find he or yourself in need of further help. They are a wonderful group of people of caring people, you will be glad you contacted them. You might want to consider them coming out for your dad as well, they usually have support people before and after a death. I feel for you at this sad time.

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