How to Tell 5-Year-old That We're Losing Her Grandpa..

Updated on June 23, 2013
M.B. asks from Milwaukee, WI
15 answers

Hi helpful mamas... You always have such great advice for me... today I am beside myself. For the past couple of years my Dad has been battling cancer. He lives halfway across the country and I have a 5-year-old daughter and haven't been able to afford to travel, so it's been a year-and-a-half since I've seen my Dad. But my Dad and I are so close, we would call each other several times a week. Then a couple of weeks ago he fell and ended up in the hospital, healed a bit and was released, then fell again and was hospitalized again, then his health started to decline quickly. I have tickets to fly to see him in six days (this was planned, to take my daughter to see her cousin, which would make my Dad so very happy because he would love to see them together.) My brother just flew to see him today and called me just now to say he's in the beginning stages of kidney failure and he is going into hospice care. Dad drifts in and out of consciousness and isn't "all there" anymore. My brother says that even if I change my flight to get there sooner Dad could cross over before I get there. I don't know what to do... because I don't know what to tell my daughter. She's only five years old and though she knows that Grandpa is sick I don't think she can understand that he is about to pass away. I don't know how to tell her... I don't know what to do... I don't even know what to ask of you but if you have any advice for me I would be so grateful... *peace*

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So What Happened?

*Edit* Many thanks for all your caring words... I wanted you to know my Dad passed away Monday afternoon... I got there in time though I am convinced that he was waiting for me, and he went on his own terms. Since then the outpouring of love from friends and family has been heartening... he has been cremated and his memorial is on July 14th, the day before his birthday. My hubby, daughter and I will be going. I told my Daughter that her Grandpa died, that his body was old and so sick but now he doesn't hurt anymore, and that he's in Heaven but whenever we think about him his spirit is near. She's been asking questions, like, when will ** die and I tell her she'll be a grownup with babies of her own before I pass. Of course there are no guarantees in life but this seems to make sense to her and comfort her. I do know that when I go, I want to go like my Dad, with my family all around me. Now he is free from pain, and his strength lives in me. *Peace*

Thanks so much everyone. As I write this I leave in 6 hours to fly to my Dad. The rest of my family is there. My hubby couldn't get off work and is staying behind, but my sis-in-law will keep my daughter for a few days (my daughter is loving having a sleepover with her cousins) and my Dad-in-law is taking me to the airport. I will update again when I return. The hospice nurse says dad may make it through the night and I might get a chance to say goodbye. My brother is picking me up at the airport. I am so sad, but also grateful for family stepping in to help (and even my job is being reasonable and supportive) *peace*

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answers from Phoenix on

Tell her in a way she can understand.Look at her in the eye and Say " Grandpa is Sick right now.He loves you very very much.You grandpa is going to lose his life"If she Still Does not understand,give her time.My father in law had cancer and died when my kids were young.
They looked at me like i was crazy but now they understand
I think(since i Went Though this)tell her And let her think about it.Its ok if she asks questions,answer the. Question
.Give her time.It Was hard to Explain to my (was 4 yr old and 5 yr old) what death was really is at the time

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answers from Portland on

I am so sorry. These times can be very, very hard.

We haven't been exactly in this situation, but we have had to explain death to my son when he was around 4 or so. A baby in his preschool community died and my son had a lot of questions. He wasn't really sad or upset, but more needing to work through the idea that the child had died.

Simple, factual explanations are usually what work best, as well as answering the question as directly and simply as possible. "Grandpa's body isn't working well any more. As people get older, their bodies get tired and sometimes, when parts of their body stop working the whole body dies."

I would try to make my language as peaceful as possible. If your father doesn't seem aware of your daughter, you can tell her "his eyes see you and his brain is tired, so it's hard for him to talk to you. You can tell him you love him. He'll know in his heart."

There is a wonderful book we have used a few times and I myself have found great comfort in: it's a simple picture book for kids called "Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children" by Bryan Mellonie. It explains: "There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is living." It goes on to use simple language and illustrations to explain that sometimes, (no matter what age) bodies can become sick or injured and that they may sometimes not recover. And that it is all a part of life, not a bad part either, just something that happens, and which happens constantly.

The other suggestion I would make is not to over-prepare her before the trip. Let her know that grandpa is not feeling well, certainly, but try to be *in the moment* as much as possible, so that she won't be afraid to visit. If you do get a call on your trip that your father has passed away, then tell her. Otherwise, I don't know how much preparing our kids is about *us* doing what we think is right instead of what our kids really need from us. I'd try to prepare for specific moments, (like going to the hospital or funeral) such as "you may see me crying sometimes, or other grown-ups crying. It's okay, and we are sad, but you don't have to cry too if you don't feel like it. We're all going to be fine, we are just really going to miss Grandpa a lot." Let her know that it's okay that you are sad and do let her know that you WILL feel better and that she doesn't have to fix it, too. Kids get anxious when we are upset, so let her know that when you are upset, it's not with her.

One last thing: let her know about happy tears, too. That sometimes, you will have happy tears remembering some good times with your father. Let her know these thing in the appropriate moments, not all at once.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

I am so very sorry for your coming loss.

My 4 year old grandson (whom I'm raising) was a part of our in-home hospice for my Dad when he was not yet 3, and for my Mom at 3.5. Before hospice began for Dad I told him that he was very sick, once hospice began I told him that Tata would be going to heaven soon (my belief.)

Dad was on hospice 26 days. His kidneys began shutting down a week before he passed, the visiting nurse saw all the signs he'd be going soon on a Friday, she said it could be 1,2 or 4 days, she couldn't say. It was 7. No one can say for sure how much longer a person has. That night Dad had a great time with family and friends, alert and happy, our final gift. After that he slept more and more until he went into a coma on Tuesday. I still took my grandson in to his Tata to kiss and hug him, I wanted Dad to know he loved him, and people DO still sense this even in a coma. On Wednesday afternoon he reached for my Mom's hand when she went in and sat next to his bed. The hospice chaplain was visiting and it brought him to tears, he was touched, he said that's how he knows people are still hearing and sensing even while comatose. That night, in a coma, he raised his arms in worship while my brother played his guitar and sang worship songs, but didn't communicate with us.

Throughout this time I kept reminding my guy that Dad was leaving soon, when Dad passed Friday night I woke my grandson and took him in to say goodbye, and he kissed him and hugged him and told him he loved him. He saw when the mortuary picked Tata up, I wanted to have a reference point for him when he questioned where he was later.

With Mom I "knew" months before she passed, she lost the will to live. So, I started preparing him a bit sooner. When he asked why she slept so much I told him she was tired and ill, her kidney disease progressed quickly, so fast her doctors were surprised. We sensed she might not be with us long so had an early Thanksgiving in September. It turned out we were right, she passed Nov 10th. She was happy to have her family all around. She started saying goodbyes a couple of weeks before she passed, she was ready even though we weren't. We called to start hospice on a Monday, she started Tuesday night, she went onto a coma Thursday evening, passed Friday night. The same, my guy said goodbye, he kissed her and hugged her. He went to both memorials and funerals.

Sorry this has been so long, my point is, my Dad wasn't ready, my Mom was, I was honest with my guy that they were leaving soon. It helped him to process it all. I'd advise you tell your daughter the truth, as many times as necessary, it may take awhile for her to understand. My grandson just asked me yesterday how long Nana and Tata will be in heaven, I told him forever. He said, "Awwwww, I miss them." And it's been a year and 4 months since we lost Dad, 7 months since we lost Mom. So it takes a while for them to truly understand. Hard as it is, tell your daughter her grandfather is very, very sick and will be dying soon. It's fine if she sees you're sad or crying, grief is an emotion we all have, it's normal.

And I would try to go see your Dad now, to say goodbye, it doesn't matter if he can't respond. He may be holding on, waiting for you. Both my parents let go when they'd finished with their goodbyes.

{{Hugs}}, I know this is hard.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

Go see your Dad.

Does your daughter know, your dad/her grandpa?

If your daughter tags along, and she sees him... in that condition, she may not be able to process it.
Because she is young.
And/or it might frighten her.
You are taking your daughter to see her cousin, though.
If you can go and see your Dad sooner, try to.

What you tell your daughter to explain his condition... depends on what you believe, about death and after.
Its hard.

My Dad passed away, before my kids got to meet him.
Presently, they both really love him and talk about him. Because, I keep his "presence' alive for them. They feel close to him. Happy about talking about him. Once in awhile my son will ask why he died/how he died, etc. And I tell him he was sick. So then my son (when he was younger) thought that anyone who got "sick" would die. It scared him, even if/when I got a minor cold. When he was in Kindergarten, and they learned about history and about Thanksgiving and about the Pilgrims and the Indians... and how the Indians got sick from introduced sicknesses from the Pilgrims and many died... he got scared. For awhile.....
He would tell me "Mommy please don't get sick! You'll die!" And for a little child, that is how he... processed it. He was 5 at the time. In Kindergarten.
But my daughter, processes it, differently. She is more matter of fact. She does not have the same reaction to it, as my son.
Each child, is different. And their age.

Per my late Dad, being he passed away already, well my kids never SAW him sick and dying. I don't know that I would have let them, see him in that condition. It was hard for even, me. An adult.
And even now, I still remember the "image" of my Dad... when he was sick and dying. It is still vivid, in my mind. But of course I also remember him, as he was before he got sick.

I don't have any answers. Just my story. Briefly.
I am so sorry... you are going through this.....
just keep in mind the age of your child.... and how they may process things like this. And make things pleasant, if possible for them, per what your beliefs or religious beliefs, are.

Do you need to, take your daughter with you?
Your Dad... will not know fully, if she is playing with her cousin or not.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

I had this scenario when my oldest was 6 ish and youngest, 3.
You have to be honest. You also have to be sensitive to what she wants to know and let her lead you in how you go about it.

Remember that her feelings are not mirrored by yours. I am saying she doesn't have the intensity that you have right now so allow her to absorb as much as she wants and no more.

Your religious leanings and faith can be a help right now, in explaining what comes after death. There are also wonderful children's books in the library to guide you to the right words. You can ask her what she knows about dying. If you have had someone else die, or a pet, you can relate it to that.
You can assure her that it's going to be a long time before you die. That gramps is older and his body is breaking down. For me, it was about my Dad's Spirit going to Heaven and we would see him again. Let her know that people are going to be sad around her, off and on. That it will get better. That she can play somewhere else when it bothers her. That there are still good memories and good times to be had by the family. Let her know anytime she wants to ask questions, she can. Tell her gramps loves her so much. Tell her how he admired her, as a baby and now. Tell her about the loss of your gramps or other relative and how it makes you smile to think of them now.
I am sorry that you are losing your dad. My Dad died before I made it home. I will pray for you to have more time.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

My husband is a Hospice doc and deals with end of life all the time. There is one thing he asks the families and patients that tells him pretty much how people will react to the death: What do you believe about God? Death means different things to different people. To some, death means goodbye forever and therefore the loss is without hope, terribly sad, and enormously painful. For others, death is a temporary separation until they meet again. And some people just aren't sure. What you tell her depends what you believe about death. My guess is that your struggle of what to tell your daughter really stems from not knowing yourself how to process this? Do you know what happens when you die?

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answers from Austin on

There are fabulous picture books about death.
I suggest you got to the library or bookstore and

We had to explain death to our child when she was 4. Lifetimes, grandma upstairs grandma downstairs..

Sorry about your dad, but so glad you will get to see him.

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answers from Los Angeles on

I'm sorry for everything going on right now. Keep breathing.

Kids understand more than you think. Our son was 4 when his 7 year old friend died suddenly in the middle of the night. We were beside ourselves with grief, but instead of putting that on our son, we just stated things matter of factly. We explained that he died and his soul is gone and he is not breathing. His body is still there, but they will be burying his body, and it doesn't hurt since his heart isn't beating and he isn't breathing. My son asked me a few questions, most of which I could not answer, like, "Well, why doesn't God just give him a new body?" I wasn't afraid to tell him that I didn't know.

We went to the viewing and my son wanted to go. My husband didn't want our son to see his friend in a casket. I left it up to our son and he wanted to see his friend one last time. Our son was fine with it. During the memorial, before the burial, they played songs and our son jumped up and sang at the top of his lungs. He thought it was a party celebrating his friend's life....and you know what? It was.

Our son gave US perspective on death, since I was raised with a very dramatic I tend to swing the opposite direction, but death has always rocked me....until that day my son taught me about life.

Last year our 4 year old daughter's fish died and she was emotionally on the fence as to how to react. I simply said, "It's the circle of life. We are all born and we all will die." I then walked away. I gave her time to process it. She asked her dad to help bury Pearly. They had a littler ceremony - no tears. Last night she said, "Hey mom, Pearly is probably just a skeleton by now, huh?" My response was, "Yep."

Love to you. Give her the facts and let her process it the way she needs to. You'll be tearful, but honestly, she'll be fine. She'll be more worried about you. This is a teachable moment. Good luck.

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answers from Phoenix on

If you're religious, you might want to ask your pastor/priest/rabbi some advice on how to handle this conversation. You can also ask your daughter what she thinks dying means and then have a discussion from there. She'll be fine. Kids bounce back much better than we do.

So sorry you're going through this.

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answers from St. Louis on

Just tell her. You are attributing adult understanding to a five year old, they don't get it. Especially with a family member that is across the country.

She will be fine, one less worry for you, get yourself through this.

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answers from Washington DC on

I'm so sorry about your dad. :( Wish I had more time to respond, but the other replies are awesome. We went through a similar situation when our son was 5. We talked a lot about it often, and explained things in factual, medical terms he could understand. Your daughter will be ok as long as you stay strong. Hard, I know. I recommend the book "Badger's Parting Gifts." It's not religious (we are, so we brought Heaven into the conversations), but conveys a sweet message about what Badger left behind for all his friends when he passed. They each had something special to remember him by. Make a small album for your daughter, or something that she can keep that will connect her to him and remind her that he loved her. Best wishes, and you have my prayers. Hugs!

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answers from Louisville on

In my ICU we try to just be very frank and concrete - we usually tell a child that their sibling has been very sick, and that the doctors can't help anymore, so their sibling is going to die. We say that the doctors will keep the patient from hurting and that we're all very sad. And we tell them it's ok for them to be sad too.

The more concrete you can be, the better. And she'll need reassurance that she's not going to die and that you are ok, even if you're sad.

Good luck - wishing you peace and strength during this difficult time.



answers from Kansas City on

We're going through this right now. My daughter is 6 and my husband's step father, the only Grandpa she's had on that side of the family, is very ill. She doesn't realize how ill he is, she's seen my Grandmother and is worried that Great-Grandma is going to die (which is valid, she keeps falling and not recovering very quickly) so we've been having discussions on what dying means. We're Catholic, so we've discussed Heaven and how we'll see Great-Grandma, or Grandpa, or our dog who died last year, again. That seems to help her. She's been pretty sad about our dog dying, randomly she will bring it up and talk about it, but lately she's started talking about how she'll get to see her again in Heaven. So, hopefully, that will make it easier on her when we lose a family member. I've been honest with her, about how I don't think it hurts to die, that everyone does it eventually, she will, so will I, but not for a very long time. She's not scared of it, that she mentions, but we'll see how it turns out when it's a family member that she loves.


answers from Dover on

See if you can get your flights switched ASAP. If you talk to the airline, maybe the would have something sooner and not charge for the change given the situation. It's worth a shot. Do all that you can do to get there in time.

As for your daughter, I would just make sure she understands that Grandpa is very sick so he won't be his normal self when she sees him. That's all you can do right now. I believe Hospice has a nice book for families with young children and it may help. In the end, you have to go with your gut but be ready for however she responds. We can only give ideas and our personal opinions and/or stories but she's your daughter and you have to do what you think is best.

We recently lost my step-mom to cancer. She and my dad were no longer married so we didn't see her as often as we would have liked but she was very much still a part of our family. I wanted to tell my daugher but my sister has a son who is only a month younger. She didn't want him told yet because he had lost his dad's father before he was born (also to cancer) so all the younger grandchildren were not told (ages 8, 6, 6, & 2) while the older ones were completely aware (21, 19, & 16). If we had told the 8 year old or my 6 year old, the other 6 year old would have surely known. We waited. She had finally told him that she was sick but never how severe (didn't tell me she told him though). I went to see her the night she passed, knew she wasn't good. Was told by the hospital staff that she had a few weeks left. Because she was still in the ER when I went to see her and my daugter had been very sick, I didn't take my daughter (even though she specifically asked to go). She passed just after midnight and my daugther never got to see her alive. I had a tough time telling my daughter she passed because I felt so guilty that she didn't get to see her. I hadn't wanted to risk making my stepmom sicker (with her weakened immune system) but in the end it wouldn't have mattered. I also felt horrible because I went against my instincts on what to tell my daughter and when to tell her because of my sister's wishes. I truly wish I had told my daughter more about what was going on because she was hit very hard when we told her that we lost her mommom.

Best of luck to you and your family.



answers from Los Angeles on

I'm very sorry for your loss. My father-in-law just passed last month under similar circumstances (in and out of hospital and declining while there). My almost 5 year old was extremely close to his grandpa, so it has been a very difficult time (in fact, as I type this he's asking questions again about grandpa). At that age, they don't truly understand the concept of death. We told him that grandpa was very sick and we weren't sure what would happen. He actually asked if grandpa was going to die. I said he might die soon, but grandpa had lived a long time and the doctors couldn't make him better anymore.

Once he actually died, we had to decide how to describe what happens. We opted for telling him grandpa was in heaven. Kids are very literal at that age and he couldn't understand how grandpa could be in heaven and also be buried in the ground, so we have had the same discussions repeatedly about our souls leaving our bodies, etc.

I recommend getting some books and reading them frequently. One of the ones that's helps is When a Grandparent Dies. You can find many different books on explaining death to kids on Amazon.

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