How to Explain Death of a Family Memeber to a 3 Year Old!

Updated on September 15, 2010
A.C. asks from Waynesville, MO
18 answers

Any advice on how to explain to my almost 4 year old that his Great Grandmother passed away! And also do you think is appropriate to take him to the funeral service? I just don't know what to do. I haven't had to deal with something like this...

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So What Happened?

Thanks everyone for the advice! I sat him down in front of a picture of his Grand Mother and explain to him that she got very sick and the doctors tried to give her medicine, but the medicine didn't work and she died and went to Heaven to be with God. He quickly heard the word Doctor and wanted to get his Doctor toys out and play. So, with that said he's definately didn't understand what I was talking about which is ok with me. I know in time he'll understand things more. I didn't tell him that she was sleeping either because my son already has issues with sleeping. And I didn't take him to the service at all. Had he understood anything I had told him I might have chosen differently, but I think I made the right decision with him! Thanks again everyone! :)

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answers from Raleigh on

Was he especially close to his great grandmother? Are you a religious person? My answers would be drastically different knowing those facts...

3 moms found this helpful

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answers from Kansas City on

I think it's a good idea to talk to children about death-- it helps them to not be afraid of it, and to realize that it's part of life. I took my 4yo to my grandfather's funeral, but didn't really tell her what it was because I didn't think she'd understand. Then she saw me crying at the funeral and she was worried. So I explained that I was sad that I wasn't going to see my grandpa again, but that I can still remember things about him that make happy and that I still love him even though he's gone.

Anyway, I personally think it would be good for your son to experience this so it's not a foreign thing to him. Just do your best to explain what's going on in a way you think he'll understand. And don't over-complicate it. At that age, sometimes they don't need a lengthy explanation-- sometimes simple is best. "My grandma died, so I won't get to see her anymore. We're going to a party where everyone who loved her will get together and remember the things we loved about her. People will be crying because they miss her, but we will also be remembering fun things about her and that will make us happy." Good luck with whatever you decide.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Indianapolis on

I am in agreement with the Moms who say talk about it and explain it. Be honest. People are born, they live, and they die. How you view the afterlife religiously is your personal opinion.

Our 4 year-old son is just now conceptualizing the concept of death, and he still doesn't quite get it.

I was young when a great Aunt passed away from throat cancer. My parents didn't let me go to the funeral because they didn't think I would understand it. I don't personally understand sheltering kids from the truth about us as living beings and understanding the emotions that come with joy and loss.

I was diagnosed with cancer the day before my son's second birthday. His sister wasn't even 11 weeks old. We were honest and factual throughout the whole process. They went to infusion (chemo) sessions with us - 2 years later, he has no concept of what cancer is and why Mommy was so sick.

At that age, I personally believe it's not inappropriate to see how families rally together in a time of loss, how you can commemorate someone's life through their passing, and how to love to the fullest extent each day.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

My grandson has lost an old dog at about 2, and a dear great-grandmother at about 4. We don't try to shield him from the understanding that death is the final outcome of all life. I believe it actually does children a disservice to treat death as if it's some secret too terrible to be endured.

Let yourself cry if that's what you need to do. Show your child that it's okay to experience all of the rich feelings of living, and that they pass and life goes on. Support and empathize with him if he expresses sadness, confusion or anger about the loss of his loved one. "Yes, sweetie, it is hard, isn't it? I feel that way, too. Sadness takes awhile, and that's good. Great Granny (or Spot) would be glad that you remember how much you love her. And then she would want you to feel happy again when you're ready."

It's been helpful in our family to introduce the idea of taking turns. Every person, animal, and plant has a turn at living its life. When their turn is finished, they die so other people, animals, and plants can have their turn. For most of us, our turn is over when we are so old and sick that we aren't enjoying being alive any more.

I would avoid associating death with sleep, because this makes some kids dread going to bed at night.

I should add that my grandson was disappointed that he didn't get to travel to his GG's funeral, and that was the first time he actually shed tears over her death. He genuinely wanted to "see how she ended." But all concerned agreed that the solemn religious proceedings would have been a bit much for such a young child.

Hugs to you all.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Austin on

Our daughter always did best with books.. Go to the library and check out some assorted story books for children about death..

Then after a few days, of reading them, let him know that Great Grand has died. Then let HIM ask any questions.. It is possible he will not ask questions.

In our family and culture we always take our children to funerals.. They are more like family reunions. The children are not afraid of death. They are used to seeing the family show emotions and then they see us all come together and share a meal and go on with our lives..

Death is treated just like any other part of living..

My husband had NEVER attended a funeral until he was 21. It was the funeral for my Grandfather. He was amazed at how children were there and behaved and were not frightened or up set and then how we all got together after wards and went on with our lives.. He said in his family, there was no way this had ever happened..

Here are some great book suggestions..

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answers from Fayetteville on

My condolences to you and your family.

I agree with the advice given - don't say she went to 'sleep'.

I love the book Tear Soup - A Recipe for Healing After Loss (by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen). It's a picture book for all ages and deals with the passing of a loved one and how family members are dealing with it.
It contains an extensive appendix with all kinds of resources, too.

Another book I like is The Next Place (by Warren Hanson) - it has beautiful pictures, is vague in the wording but therefore leaves it open to interpretation. Some of the words used may be bit challenging for a three year old, but then the pictures and the vagueness would allow him/her to use her own imagination.

Be honest and matter of fact. Let her answer her own questions, and only interfere if it is very off-base, or she blames herself somehow.

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answers from Hickory on

My children have known death for all their lives. For us we talked about God calling them home and they are with him now. I told them what a funeral is all about (saying good bye for now). My son has wanted to go and other times not. It all depend on the person. You know your child better than any one so go with your heart on what to do about viewing the body. And always be per-paired to get up and step out if your little one needs too. We also tell ours it is ok to be sad, cry, and to miss the person. Last year my then 9 and 6 year old decided to go to the funeral of a dear lady from our church that passed. My husband sang at it and it went great for the kids. As a parent you just have to do what you feel is best. I pray it goes well.

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answers from Boston on

The best advice I could give on how to explain it is to tell him the truth as you believe it, in an age appropriate way. You don't say if you have a faith or what it is, and beliefs about death vary greatly from one to another. Whatever you do, don't lie, and don't just make something up. He will eventually figure that out and it will confuse him. As far as if you should take him, I would suggest that depends on how he behaves in a public and probably boring place. My daughter had just turned 4 when I took her to a funeral for an Aunt. I explained what would happen before I took her and gave her the option of coming with me or staying with a grandparent. She decided she wanted to "say goodbye" too, and came with me. I made sure that the people I was with were aware that she was coming, and had things for her to do if she got bored. She was so good, and even went to the casket and kissed my Aunt on her forehead, which still amazes me. She has been to several more since then and she is always incredibly respectful. I believe the reason for that is that she learned young and wasn't taught to fear death.

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answers from Columbus on

I don't have any advice for what to tell your little boy, except: 1) keep it simple, 2) keep it true (and DONT say that Great-Grandma is sleeping--guaranteed to cause your kid sleep problems if you do!).

My grandfather passed away this summer, and I really felt the need to go. We didn't have a choice to whether to take our then-20-month-old son to the service, since there was no one to leave him with. But if you're going out of town, you might ask your spouse or an older cousin to babysit during the service. Otherwise, if it's a church service, most places have a room set aside for the family; during the service, because my son was really tired, DH took him to that room and he napped. We also brought some quiet toys & books for him, in case he fought his nap, and for worse case scenario, one of us would've just left the church and gone outside.

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answers from Medford on

Its never easy. It depends on if you are religeous or not. We tell our children that when God is ready for you to come home, you get to go. For most people its when they are very old and their bodies just don't work right. My dad passed at 48 years old Massive heart attack during surgery, my daughter was almost 2 and I was pregnant with my son). We talked a lot about it with her on a level that she could understand. I remember once I was trying to explain that she would be seeing mommy and daddy crying and sad but that it was ok and we could work through it. She said, no mommy you can't cry! I asked why she said that and she replied, "because you are a mommy and mommy's don't get sad and cry only kids do when they are in trouble!" I will never forget that! We tell them even now when they ask that Papa's heart got sick and it couldn't work anymore.

As for the funeral I would strongly advise against it unless you don't have child care. It is way to overwelming for them to understand and it distracts others from what they are doing there. SOme might like the distraction, but they are their to morn/celebrate/grieve, and with a child running around it might not be best.

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answers from McAllen on

Dear A.,
I'm sorry for your loss. As for how to explain, I really don't know, how, but as to taking him to the funeral service, I would strongly advice against it. Children feel the pain, and desperation in those kinds of situations and it may be too much for him/her and will make him uncomfortable and even sick!! (This happened to my sister, she is 10 yrs younger, and I remember how she told my mom, "I feel sad in my stomach" and started throwing up. Good Luck with the explaining part. Condolences and Good Luck!

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answers from San Antonio on

As simple as possible. When my mom died my girls were 2 and 6 weeks, we are catholic so I told my 2 year old that:
Grandma passed away, she was very sick and God wanted her not to hurt anymore so she fell asleep and will not wake up, she went to live with God and the angels.
She did ask if we were going to live with God too when we fell asleep that night. I told her No, because we are perfectly healthy, we have to be very very very sick for God to let us go with him.

With that she understood, now that she is 11 she knows my mom died in a car accident, but with a child just as plain and simple as possible is the way to go.


answers from Topeka on

No, do not take a 3 year old to a funeral, unless he is an unusually quiet child.

I am sorry for your loss.



answers from Sacramento on

Mom, this topic has been covered in the past if you search it on this web-site. I think almost all Moms were in agreement that taking a young child to funerals is not a good idea. Get a sitter if you plan to attend the service. You can explain to your son in a very simple way that Great Grandma died and she went to heaven. Assuming she was old or ill you can also tell him this. Just say , "It is sad, but it is part of our lives that when people get old (and or sick) and have lived a long time then they go to heaven to be with God." THere are many simple children's books on death that may help you explain it if he was close to her. If he was not, I would not go into a lot of explanation other than what I suggested. I am sorry about your family's loss, hope this helps.


answers from Memphis on

I think it's hard to explain death to a 3 year old. They don't understand 'forever' just yet. And if you take him to the funeral, I would advise against viewing the body, just might create bad dreams for him. I agree that you shouldn't say 'gone to sleep' because like I said, they don't understand forever and that might confuse them when it's time for you or him to go to sleep.

I do recall we took a smaller child to her great-grandmothers funeral but she was less than 2 so she didn't understand anything and we took her only because we had no one to watch her, it was out of state. We didn't do the viewing.

Best of luck to you. Only you know if your child understands or not what death means, if they are mature enough to not be frightened by it, etc. I think you'd be able to find some books at your local library to help you explain it to him.



answers from Philadelphia on

My dad and father in law passed away last Dec and my kids were 9,7 and 5. My mom only had a service as my Dad was cremated so we took them all. My father in law wasn't and they had a service, we took our youngest ONLY becasue my mom babysat our older 2 and she has dogs and cats, my youngest has asthma that is set off by animals. Otherwise I would have left her with my mom, we had no other childcare We didn't linger at my fil's body. I don't recommend children attending a service unless it is a parent or sibling.

As for telling my kids, we are Christian so we said pop pop is in heaven with God. They knew my dad had cancer, we talked about it. My father in laws death was a surprise and we weren't close to him so we just said he was badly sick and is now with God.

With young children I think you should keep explanations simple. I will give my kids better explanations when they are older.


answers from Charlotte on

When my dad passed away in 2005 my nephew was just about 2.5 and we did take him to the funeral because he was very close with my dad. we told him that pawpaw was going to live in heaven and that he would still be able to talk to him if he wanted. i also stood at the open casket with him so that he could say good bye, and he did he told him that he loved him and he would be a good boy. then as we went outside he looked up at the clouds and yelled " i miss you papa! se you later!" even 5 years later he still tells me he talks to my dad when hes sad and that it makes him feel better. so i guess it depends on how close they are to his great grandma, and i would never deny my child that once last chance to say good bye...regaurdless of the age...



answers from Charlotte on

As a child I was always taken to funerals (nobody had a baby sitter then!) and I grew up just knowing death was normal in all families. Years ago I had 2 nieces who were so protected! They could not see a dead kitten,or be told a neighbor had died. They are in their 50s now and summer of 2009 their mother died suddenly while on vacation. My nieces were of course,very upset- we all were! But all the family felt if they had had a more normal childhood,losing their mother would have been a LITTLE less painful.
Then 2 years ago my grandson died in an accident here at our place and his little 3 yr old nephew was told by his parents that "Uncle Blake is in Heaven." The little one is 5 now and still at times talks so sweet aout his uncle in Heaven and it consoles all of us actually!

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