How can I tell my child their grandparent has died?

When telling a child that someone important in their life has died, it’s important to tell them as soon as possible. Ideally this should be done by someone who is close to them. Try to use language that is appropriate to your child’s age and understanding and avoid using phrases like ‘passed away’ and ‘gone to sleep/to the stars' which can be confusing for children, but instead use words like ‘dead’ and ‘died’. 

You might say:

I have something very sad to tell you. Grandad has been very ill for some time, and now he has died.

You may have to answer questions repeatedly as your child’s understanding develops; sometimes it can help to ask your child what they think so that you can gauge their level of knowledge and understanding.

How might my child react to the death of their grandparent?

The death of a grandparent is often a child or young person’s first encounter with the death of someone important to them. Until this point, some children are unaware that people in their life will die, and this can be a shock for them. They may have had an awareness at some level, but until it actually happens, they may not be prepared for the reality. Some children will work out that if a grandparent has died, other people may die, resulting in unusually clingy or anxious behaviour. Others may take it all very much in their stride.

Some children may be a bit more prepared, having had a family pet or someone else that they know die. They may recognise some of the behaviours and feelings associated with a death and the rituals we use to say goodbye.

Should I let my child see that I’m upset about the death of their grandparent?

Parents have a great deal to manage when their own parent, parent-in-law or carer dies. A parent will be managing their own grief, as well as the reactions and responses of their child to the death of their grandparent.

Children look to the adults around them for cues on how to react and respond. First encounters with grief are significant events that will influence and shape how children respond to loss in the future. Based on how you react, a child will decide whether they feel it is OK to talk about death and dying and show their emotions, or they might feel they need to hide their feelings from others. Therefore, it can be helpful to be honest with your feelings about your parent/parent-in-law’s death, to show children it is OK to be upset about it, and also to feel different feelings at different times.

If your child understands that you are upset or behaving differently because their grandparent has died, your distress will be less worrying to them. Explaining that your reaction is natural, gives your child permission to be open about their own feelings. Equally, if they don’t have the same response as you or other family members, let them know that everyone responds differently and that is OK too.

Death and dying can often be skewed on TV and in other media, concentrating on the dramatic and traumatic. This can result in some children being more anxious about death than they might otherwise have been. It can help to reassure your child by explaining that, just like being born, dying is a part of the life cycle and if their grandparent was old when they died, that death is a natural part of growing old. 

Do all children react to the death of a grandparent in a similar way?

The closeness of the relationship and frequency of contact that grandchildren have had with their grandparent can influence their response. The death of a distant grandparent with whom they have had little contact may be an event that causes little upset, and their grief may be short lived. However, children can sometimes seem not to be very affected by the death until attending a family occasion, such as a birthday party or wedding. They might then become more aware that someone important is missing, and always will be.

Young people can sometimes not fully appreciate the special things that grandparents can bring until that grandparent is no longer there. They may also realise that they can't now change anything about their relationship, which can lead to feelings of guilt or regret. It may help some young people to write a letter to express what they wished they had said or done with their grandparent. In some cases, doing this could also help strengthen the relationship the child has with any grandparents who are still alive.

Many grandparents have a key role to play in a child’s life, providing childcare for working parents and seeing their grandchildren on a regular basis. Others are their grandchild’s main carer, responsible for the child’s upbringing. Many children and young people may find a deep connection with their grandparent, who can offer a different view of the world from that of a parent. The loss of this special relationship can be very upsetting for them. The closer the relationship, the more keenly the loss is likely to be felt.

Should I allow my child to see their grandparent in the funeral home?

Viewing the body of someone who has died may feel like a very grown-up thing for a child to do and many adults will understandably have reservations. People have different views or may assume that a child will find it too upsetting. It inevitably happens at a time when you may be struggling with your own feelings of sadness. However, provided they are given a choice, are well prepared and allowed to change their mind, many bereaved children and young people tell us that seeing the body is something that they do not regret doing.

Should my child go to their grandparent’s funeral?

A very young child, toddler, or even a baby can go to a funeral with the rest of the family. Although they may not understand what is happening at the time, when they are older they will appreciate that they were a part of this important event along with everyone else. Older children can be given the choice to attend. As long as a child is prepared for what is going to happen and what they will see, attending the funeral can be a helpful experience.

You may find it useful to watch our short animated films with your child Explaining funerals to children: what happens at a burial and Explaining funerals to children: what happens at a cremation

How can we remember a grandparent who has died?

We are very sad and will miss Granny a lot. But we have lots of happy memories of her. Can you remember the time when..?

Making memories together can help your child feel connected to their grandparent who has died. You might like to talk about their grandparent and share memories or stories, or do something together in memory such as making a memory box or going somewhere that was important to them. Watch our short animated film: Remembering someone who has died or look at our activities for grieving children and young people for more ideas.

Where a child didn’t know their grandparent well or has only incomplete memories, sharing your own memories and positive stories can help them feel connected to them and feel part of their family’s history.

At the same time, it is important to recognise that each person had their own unique and individual relationship with their grandparent, and will therefore experience the loss in their own way.

How can I support my child whose grandparent has died?

When supporting a grieving child, it is important to recognise that grief is a completely normal response to death. With sensitive support from family, friends, and school, most children won’t need professional help. Be honest with your child and answer any questions they have about the death of their grandparent and any changes to plans that might involve your child. Check their understanding and make sure they haven’t overheard anything that has confused or upset them. Keep to routines as much as you can and if this is not possible, let your child know what the changed plans are. Communicate openly with your child as much as is possible, giving them opportunities to express their feelings. If your child is struggling with their grief, you can contact us for guidance and support.

Visit our page: How we can support you for more on our services.

You can also call our Helpline 0800 02 888 40, email [email protected], or use Live Chat on our website.