When a grandparent or elderly member of the family dies, it’s often a child’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 it can be a shock for them. Very young children don’t understand that death is permanent. What you tell children will depend on their age and level of understanding, and how much they already know. Child Bereavement UK shares some ideas for supporting a grieving child. 

Preparing your child: If time allows, information can be given in bite-size chunks, over the course of different conversations. This gives the child time in between to process what they’ve been told and to ask you any questions. Only give them the information they need at the time, and add more later.

If the child knows something already, acknowledge this: “You know that Grandad has been ill for a long time, and the doctors have been trying to make him better.”

Their response may help you to understand how much they already know.

Ask what they’ve noticed about the person recently. They might say something like “he’s too tired to play with me”, and they might go on to say more about what they think is happening.

Guided by what the child says, and depending on the situation, you could say something like: “Grandad’s illness has got a lot worse and the doctors have tried everything they can. There isn’t anything more they can do now to make him better, and that means he won’t live for much longer This means that Grandad will die.  We don’t know when this will be, but the doctors think it could be very soon.

Telling your child: Try to use simple language, appropriate to your child’s age and understanding. You might say: ‘I have something sad to tell you. Grandad died this morning.”

Be honest: You may need to explain to a young child that when somebody dies their body stops working. You might say: “Grandma was very old and when bodies are very, very, old they don’t work as well as they used to. Eventually they stop working.” Reassure your child that death is a normal part of the life cycle, just like being born, and is a natural part of growing older.  

Share your feelings: Children look to the adults around them for cues on how to behave. They will decide from this whether it’s OK to talk about what has happened and to show their emotions. Be honest and show your child that it’s OK to feel sad and to also have different feelings at different times.

Allow your child to express their grief: An older child might not appreciate the special things that elderly members of the family bring until that person is not around.  They can also no longer change anything about their relationship with that person. If they have any regrets, it can help some young people to write a letter, expressing what they wish they’d said or done when the person was around, or simply writing down or sharing memories about them.

Grief can be delayed: The closeness of the relationship a child or young person has with their grandparent or elderly relative will influence their response.  The death of a distant relative with whom they have had very little contact may be an event that causes little upset, and their grief may be short-lived.  However, sometimes their grief can be delayed and may show itself when attending a family occasion, where they become aware that someone important is missing and always will be. 

Recognise that each relationship is unique: When a grandparent dies, it’s an opportunity for a family to grieve together.  It’s important to acknowledge, though, that each person had their own unique and individual relationship with the person who has died. Everyone in the family will experience the loss in their own way. 

If you have lost someone close to you and need support, you can call the National Bereavement Service helpline on 0800 024 6121 or email info@theNBS.org 

For help and information for bereaved children and people grieving the death of a baby or child we highly recommend contacting Child Bereavement UK’s helpline on 0800 02 888 40 or email support@childbereavementuk.org