Q: My father died this year, and our young son has been asking questions. He wants to know where grandpa has gone and whether he’s become a “guardian angel.” What’s the best way to talk about death with a child?
A: We’d encourage you to be open with your son about his grandfather’s passing. Death is a part of life, and it’s important for children to understand that. So be honest when you talk about it. Say “Grandpa died,” not “he’s gone away” or “he went to sleep.” These phrases can lead to confusion and might even cause your son to wonder if he’ll die when he goes to sleep!
Look for teachable moments and opportunities to talk about what has happened. Parents often avoid this subject to protect their children, but we can use everyday occurrences—wilting flowers, changing seasons in other parts of the world, even the death of a pet—to help them understand the reality. Perhaps most importantly, remember that when a death occurs, our children will take their cues from us and react in great part based on how we react.
Also, help your son feel comfortable sharing his feelings. Let him know that you miss Grandpa, too, and that it’s okay to feel sad when we lose a loved one. Part of this process might involve recalling good memories of special times with Grandpa. Look through photo albums and tell fun stories from the past.
Be sure to use age-appropriate language. Most young children don’t have the capacity to grasp abstract concept such as death. Depending on his age, there’s a chance your son will not fully understand what has happened to his Grandpa and won’t be able to appreciate the permanence of death. So keep the discussion simple, geared to your son’s level of maturity and insight.
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