How to Tell Your Toddlers About Death of Family Member

Updated on July 10, 2008
N.M. asks from Wayne, PA
16 answers

We recently had bad news about the passing of an Uncle of my 2 (almost 3) year old and 1-1/2 year old. We haven't said anything to them yet and the services are this weekend. How does one approach telling their toddlers, particularly the 2 year old who is very intelligent and conversant about this horrible news?

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answers from Philadelphia on


I am very sorry to hear your sad news. I lost my grandfather when my older son was 2 1/2 and my mother-in-law found a great book for me. It is called, "How Do We Tell the Children" by Dan Schaefer and Christine Lyons. It covers children ages 2 through teen and all different situations from the death of a pet to a close family member to a baby. It's a hard book to read (maybe because I was pregnant at the time) but it really helps you as a parent guide your children and understand their needs at that difficult time.

Best of luck and God Bless!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Pittsburgh on

Hi N.,
I'm sorry for your loss. It's always hard to explain to little people what is going on. We've had a number of deaths since my daughter has been born and people at funerals seem to be comforted a lot by the little new lives, so we always bring our children. First we do talk to them. In very simple terms we try to explain that it was thier time to go up to heaven. We try to explain that they were very happy and had lived long lives and they should not worry about anyone else going to heaven, but it was ___'s time. We also explain that people at the funeral will be crying and that's ok. They are missing ___ but it's ok because he is in heaven with Jesus looking down on ua. And he is happy and not in any pain. (Please do not be offended if you're not christian, just change the explination.) Our children have always done very well at funerals and have been a comfort to the family. They will have lots of questions and some children will be scared of the crying. Just be as delicate as possible and it should be fine. Good luck.



answers from Pittsburgh on

I'm very sorry for your loss. My son lost his Pap Pap at the same age. He was also a big caregiver to my son, so it was a pretty MAJOR issue with him. I will never forget sitting him down (he knew his Pap had cancer) and telling him that his Pap had died. I told him that sometimes the doctors can use medicine to make people better and sometimes it doesn't work. I told him that it didn't work for pap pap and that although Pap had tried very hard and fought and fought, he had died. I told him he now would be living in heaven with Jesus. I told him that Jesus had made Pap Pap well again. I also told him that we would always remember Pap Pap and as long as we did, he would always live in our hearts. I told him that someday, we would see pap Pap again whe we die and go to live in heaven. I agree with avoiding things like "he's sleeping, he's watching over you" etc.
I think my son had a hard time because I decided NOT to take him to the visitation or funeral--I just don't think he would have understood it at age 2, but I have explained funerals/burial to him. Tyler was making Valentines for everyone (2 months after the death) and was perplexed as to how he could get pap Pap's to him. My husband bought 2 helium balloons, attached the valentine & a letter from my son and let it 'float to heaven". He really seemed helped by that act. Email me persoonally if you want to discuss this further, OK? Again, my sympathy to your family.



answers from Sharon on

Hi N.! My dad passed away in April, and my 2 year old seemed a little confused about why he was lying there in the funeral home. I explained to her that Papa was in the sky with the Angels now. She asw him in the hospital, while on life support, and then after everything was removed. I just told her that he was very sick. 3 months later, she reminds me that he was sick, and that he died, and is ow with the angels. I used the angels b/c she knows what they are...still iffy on who God is, so I didn't want to use that!
My daughter sounds like your 2 year old, very smart for her age...but did remarkably well with the bad situation! Like I said, I would use something that they are familliar with like the sky,angels,clouds or whatever. And remember to answer them honestly, plus at this age, they probably won't remember much anyways later in their life. Good Luck and sorry for your loss! ~C.



answers from Pittsburgh on

Hi N.,

I'm so sorry for the death of your family member. When I worked for hospice back in Ohio, we counseled family members to talk openly and honestly to their children - even young children - about death. Try not to use euphemisms, especially "Uncle went to sleep" as this will confuse and frighten a child. Tell them that his body stopped working and that all living things will one day die which means their bodies will stop working. Keep it simple. Give them the news initially, but then let their questions, if any, guide you.

Children are awesome at knowing how much info. they can handle. They will ask questions as they think of them. They will play when they've had enough.

Books are a great way to talk about death with your children. "Bear's Last Journey" is a great book. It will be too advanced for your 1 1/2 yr. old, but great for your almost 3 yr. old. Funeral homes often have other resources, books, pamphlets. I know we used to hand out a Mr. Rogers pamphlet/mini book to our families with small children.

When the time is appropriate and depending on your belief system, you can encourage your children to continue their relationship with their Uncle even though he has died. Tell them they can still talk to him and think of him whenever they want to even though they can't see him anymore. Remind them how much he loved them. Remind them how much you love them and give lots of reassurance.

Please feel free to e-mail me if you have any more questions.
I hope you find the info. helpful and blessings to you and your family during this most difficult time.




answers from Pittsburgh on

I am sorry for your loss. Although not the same, I had to explain the loss of our kitty to my then two year old this past year, and he is also pretty bright for his age. I found the following advice, which applied to the loss of a pet or a loved one:

The advice I found was to be honest, but simple in explanations. No "Uncle is sleeping" or "Uncle has passed away." It is hard for adults sometimes to say the person died, and a child this age doesn't really have a concept of death, and doesn't understand a euphemism. Or maybe your child does have a concept of death, maybe he knows about bugs dying,for instance, that they don't move anymore after dying, and you can relate it to that -- once your body stops working, you have died, remember what happened when you stepped on that ant? So, the explanation should be geared to saying, uncle died, his body stopped working. Depending on how uncle died, and if he wants to know how he got broken, you could explain that -- uncle had a very bad sickness that some people get, and it caused his body to stop working, the doctors could not help him, that sometimes happens -- remember when we could not fix that toy you broke? Uncle was in an accident that caused his body to break. You might have to repeat the same thing over and over, as he asks. Don't provide more information than he requests, keep it literal, keep it simple.

Then again, if he was not close to the uncle, one explanation may be enough. Although my child is bright as well, they still don't "get" death at that age. He did not get upset when our kitty died, and kept talking about her for a while as if she was still around, but he now gets it. I had to keep telling him that Mynx died, that we won't see her anymore, that we miss her, but her body broke. He did notice that my husband was very very sad, so he would say "is daddy sad about Mynx?" and I would say yes, and then I would ask if he wanted to hug daddy to help make him feel better or something. That was the extent of it.

Just be careful to be straight, and be aware that explanations involving angels and heaven may be confusing, because of how literal children are. If you tell him uncle is sleeping, he may expect uncle to wake up, and/or become afraid that either he or you won't wake up after falling asleep. I might be wary of explaining that uncle died due to being sick, too, in case that might disturb him the next time he gets sick. If you say uncle "went to heaven", he may take that as a place that uncle can come back from or that he can go visit. Your call on whether your guy can handle a discussion involving heaven, if you believe in those things.

Primarly, he may begin to connect that if uncle's body can stop working, mommy or daddy's body might stop working. Kids at this age very much need reassurance, they are very self centered, and their main concern at that point would be who will take care of them? So tell them who will take care of them, or if neither you or your husband are at death's bed, it was suggested in my research that you tell them that nothing will happen to you or daddy. You don't have the sickness uncle got, you are very careful drivers (if uncle died in a car accident) etc. Tell him that aunt blah or whoever will be happy to take care of them if mommy or daddy could not. What they want is to be reassured that someone will continue to look after them.

I would be most concerned with what he will see at the funeral home, because that is more immediate. Prepare him for and tell him that he may see you and other people crying. If there is an open casket, tell him that everyone is looking at uncle's broken body to say goodbye, that this is one way that people say goodbye to people who have broken. The crying of people around them sometimes upsets kids more than the person's death, and tell him that you are crying because you are sad that you won't see uncle anymore, and that you are going to miss him. That it is ok to cry when you are sad. Then, if you want, and he asks a question that naturally leads that way, you can talk about your religious beliefs.

I think this was all very sound advice, and my little guy handled it pretty well. I didn't need most of it, we didn't have to spend much time on it. However, that was a cat, not a person. They do keep asking, periodically, so be prepared to answer the same questions many times.

I doubt that the 1 1/2 year old is really going to understand much of anything. He may just be upset at people crying, and I would just hold him and comfort him as I would at any other time that he would get upset.

Many people offered advice about explanations involving heaven, and I think that they did well with their kids, I particularly liked the story of the balloons taking Valentines to Pap Pap, but again, caution -- if they can go there, why can't the child? Again, cognitively, kids are very literal. How can there be a place that you can't get to? So just be prepared for that, if you choose to include a metaphysical explanation (religious) in your discussions. That might be harder to comprehend. If he asks or hears things about heaven, then for sure, I'd talk about what you believe with him.

I hope that this helps. Funerals are such a mixed experience -- you are sad, but at the same time, they are joyful -- you learn things about the person that you never knew, you see and connect with people that you haven't seen for a long time. I like to think of them as a goodbye, and a celebration of the person's life. That's the Irish way of looking at it -- that is why they cry, drink and dance at a wake.



answers from Philadelphia on

Hi N. - I'm so sorry for your loss.
I'm a SAHM of 4 children and 1 of my own. One is 5 and the rest under the age of 2. Kids are smart....but will usually forget things that aren't in front of them anymore. I wouldn't get into details with your child. I would merely just tell them they are home with Jesus now or something to that affect. I probably wouldn't take them to the funeral. They are sure to ask too many questions, which in return will upset you more than anyone. Death is around us every minute of everyday, so why purposely expose them to it so young.
I wish you the best to all your family.



answers from Philadelphia on

I agree with using books to explain death to children. I have a great book called Waterbugs and Dragonflies. It's written by Doris Stickney. It's a short little book but explains how when people die they go somewhere else and can't come back to see us anymore. I was first introduced to it in high school when my uncle died and the preacher did a little "childrens sermon" at the funeral service because my uncle had a lot of grandchildren. It not only helped the children but touched a lot of the adults as well. Good luck with helping your children through their grief and I'm sorry for your loss.



answers from Philadelphia on

I'm really sorry for your loss.

My grandmother died when my daughter was 26 months old. She had spent a lot of time with my grandmother, incl. visiting at the hospital near the end. Less than a week later, my husband's grandmother died, suddenly; my daughter also spent a lot of time with that great-granbdmother. It was a very emotional week for our families, of course. We talked to our daughter about death, generally and specifically. We did talk to her about the death. Children at that age are very resiliant when it comes to death; at least that was our experience. She was sad, in part because we were sad, and she was there to give us hugs and tell us she misses Nana or Great-Grandma, too.

When she was 4 yrs old, my brother-in-law died. That was a much bigger learning experience...seeing her cousins without their Daddy. She is very spiritual, was even back then, and asked a lot of questions. She asked questions and quoted The Lion King in her questions... (The Lion King takes some lines from the Book of Daniel, we learned!) Unfortunately, one year later she had to deal with the death of another person close to us, and a year after that, yet another. It sounds strange, but the very unfortunate, but early exposure to all this seems to have given her (and my son, 4 years toynger than her) a healthy and practical outlook.

I wish you strength during this difficult time.



answers from Philadelphia on

If you do an internet search for explaining death to a child, you get a lot of resources. I'm sure you've gotten some pretty good advice on here already, but it's worth checking out if you're still unsure.



answers from York on

It sounds like you are planning to take the children to the services. If so, you need to have this conversation ASAP. A brief explanation & offer to answer any questions.
My husband's grandmother died in May (shortly after my son turned 5). We traveled to NY (from PA) for the services. We explained ahead of time that we would see other relatives there, but that grandma would be lying down. We did allow him to see her in the casket. The viewing was several hours long & we brought things to entertain him, & he behaved quite well. However, he did return to the casket several times. One of the items we brought for him was a mini-photo album with pictures of him over the last few months to show my in-laws who live about 6 hrs away & we only see a few times a year. Because she was Catholic (I think that's the reason, anyway) there was a type of kneeling bench at the head of the casket. At one point, my son asked to "show grandma the pictures". So I took him up to the casket for a few minutes (when no one else was in the immediate vicinity) & allowed him to "show" her the pictures. Even now, I have tears in my eyes as I remember him asking to give her a hug & a kiss. I explained to him that her body was here, but that the part of her that loves us back is with Jesus now.
You didn't mention if you have any particular religious affiliation. If so, you'll want to incorporate that into your conversation. If not, I'm not really sure wha tto say, since you'd obviously wnt to train your children in your beliefs, and I have no idea how to approach that.
I am so sorry for your loss. I will pray for you & your family during this difficult time.



answers from Scranton on

I would tell them that he was called to heaven to be with god. If they are not religious I don't know what I would say.





answers from Erie on

My grandmother died when my eldest was 3, and her younger sister was 1. I come at my answer from a Christian perspective, so you can take it or leave it if your orientation to life is different. :-)

Great-Grandma was in a nursing home, in a wheelchair when she was out of bed, and she was failing enough that at christmastime, my eldest asked me when she was going to die. She did die in Feb., and my mom called me to let me know. I didn't tell the kids (mostly the older one) right off, because I didn't want to sit them down and poentially traumatize them.

but oddly enough, the next morning on the way to daycare, Beth asked me, "Mommy, when is Great Grandma going to die?" I told her that she had just died the day before. That her body stopped working, and God gave her a new healthy one. The trick with the healthy one is that you can only use it in God's house, up in heaven. But I made sure she understood that Great Grandma couldn't get sick anymore, in fact, she was now healthy enough to run and jump just like Beth could. All was quiet while she digested this info, and then I heard a loud, "MOMMY!!!!" come from the carseat next to me. I said, "what?" And she announced, "She doesn't need her wheelchair anymore !!!!"

What was really neat about this, is that Beth had been afraid of the wheelchair. If we visited when Grandma was in the wheelchair, Beth wouldn't leave my arms. she was afraid of her Great Grandma. But if Great Grandma happened to be in bed when we arrived, Beth would climb right up on the bed and gab with her. so, in the end, death took away the thing that had interfered in Beth's relationship with her Great Grandma.

that's our story. we had previously been by a cemetary one day when Beth had asked me what it was. At that point, God inspired me to give a good explanation. I told her that when we get old and our bodies no longer work, then God gives us new bodies but we can't use them here on earth. WE have to use them in god's house. Since we don't get to see them anymore, we put their old now useless bodies in the ground, and we put stones up so we can remember them.

It worked well for us, and that simple explanation has stood our family well throughout the years, even as we and the children aged, because sometimes the most simple of explanations work best for those of us who are older and need to be reminded to have faith, and that God is still at work and still loving us, even when we are experiencing times of great pain and loss.

there are also a great number of children's books that deal with topics like this. I would READ before you buy, however. Picture books are easy and quick to read, and you should do so to be sure the information presented is what YOU want your children to hear. I've read good children's books and I've read children's books that are horrible. So don't trust the label or the endorsement. READ the book before you buy it. If it deals with the issue in a way that resonates with your child, you'll be surprised, but when asking what to read at bedtime, it'll be the book about death. wow. Not your usual choice, but when it touches the right chord in your child, it'll be comforting and will help him or her to feel good about themselves. :-)

Above all, treat death like a fact of life. Try not to let the kids see the trauma of it, but to experience the loss at their level, based upon how well they knew the relative. It's okay to cry with them, but try to be as positive as you can about living in the aftermath. Only dwell upon the loss wtih the kids as long as the kids want to dwell on it. they don't feel it as keenly as you do, so you don't want to push your feelings onto them. While they will miss their uncle, particularly at family gathering times, they are more likely to take the loss in stride and keep going than you are. :-)

and if you have questions about what happens after life here on earth, I recommend you talk with a Christian minister. that way you will be able to gain assurance of God's love in your life, and you will be able to have confidence in the future, no matter what happens to you or to those around you.

Best of luck. It'll work out. Really.



answers from Pittsburgh on

I think this is dependent upon your religious beliefs. We told our daughter that God needed her aunt. That she would still be able to watch over her from heaven but that we wouldn't be able to see her anymore. We told her that she was welcome to tell her aunt things if she needed to in the same way that she prays to God and that God would make sure her aunt heard her. We also told her that her aunt loved her very much and wanted to be there to see her (and her own daughters) grow up but couldn't be. We made sure to tell her that it was okay for her to miss her aunt and to be angry or upset that she was gone. We told her that if she was feeling angry or upset or wanted to talk about her aunt, that we would be happy to talk with her about it and listen to her.

This sounds like a lot to tell them but it really isn't that much. It does sometimes take some reminders as to why they can't see that person and you might have to tell them again just because it is a difficult concept to understand and toddlers/preschoolers attention spans aren't always the best. When her aunt died, my daughter was 4 years old. However, my cousins little boy was almost 2. She told him the same thing. Like I said, it takes a little longer for them to understand and a little more understanding and patience as a parent with the younger ones but they get a lot more than adults give them credit for.

My best advice is to be straightforward and as honest as possible. My aunt's death was very violent so we did not share any of those details with my daughter. We spent a bit of time sitting with her and listening to her talk about her aunt and ask questions about what did we think she was doing right now and do you think she misses me, etc. Overall, I have to say that it is probably harder on the adults than the children. Children are very resilient.

Anyhow, good luck. I hope this helps.



answers from Philadelphia on

There are books out there that can help you, I don't know any of the names off hand but go to any barnes and nobles or something and they can help you. As far as what I would say, this may not be the same thing but to explain to my 3 year old daughter where the cat was (he was 20 and ill so he had to be put down) we told her that he was old and had a good life but god needed him and he was in a better place where he would be able to run and jump and play again. As far as for a human, I don't know the circumstance but telling them that he is in a better place and that he will always be there in their hearts seems to work from what I have seen and telling them that although you can't hear him anymore you can always talk to them and they will hear you and watch out for you. I am not sure what your religion is but I hope this helps. I am so sorry for your loss. I will keep your family in my prayers.



answers from Philadelphia on

Dear N.,
I am so sorry for your loss.

Both my mother and my spouse's mum died in the last 2 years and we told our 5 year old and 3 year old as much as we could. We did not want them shocked by our crying and sadness. 2 years ago we took our eldest to the service but left our youngest home with a good friend. Both children went to the service this May for my MIL. We read them books about death. 3 favorites are: Rudi's Pond by Eve Bunting, I Miss You by Pat Thomas, and Dribbles by Connie Heckert. (We returned "the fall of Freddie the Leaf", we felt it was too intellectual and advance and long for our children and their attention span - mine too for that matter.) My spouse & I agreed that we would be as honest without being gruesome to our children. Both our mum's died from cancer in which the family participated in their care so our children (age appropriate) helped to care or visited and gave cuddles and held hands until the last possible moment. Your children will amaze you with their compassion, curiosity, and wisdom. Let them guide you in your discussions. And if it is your families philosophy, let them see your many different emotions.

Again, my condolences for your families loss & sadness.

A. m.

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