Talking to Children About Death

19 Feb

When a relative or another loved one is ill or dies we, as adults, must first process our loss and take care of ourselves so that we can then take care of our children.  Much like the instruction on an airplane, “Affix your oxygen mask first,” if we cannot cope with the personal loss of a parent, grandparent, or another aging relative, we will be less able to explain with care the loss to our children.   Of course, this isn’t an ideal situation and, often, the sadness and distress that we feel is far too great to disguise when we are speaking to a child.

“Why did grandma die,” and “where is grandpa now” are probably two of the hardest questions a parent faces.  If you have a specific religious tradition that deals with death as a transition to heaven, you have guidelines in place to talk to your child. However, if you are not religious or are in a situation where mom and dad have different faiths and different traditions, you are traveling unchartered territory.

It is fairly certain that you will not use the old, “Grandma is just sleeping,” because we all know the consequences of that statement.  If grandma is sleeping, will she wake up?  If sleeping is death, will any of us wake up?  If grandma has gone to heaven, why can’t she come back for a visit?  What is heaven, and can we go visit her like we used to visit her in Florida?

Death poses some really tough questions for a parent to approach with a child.  While the following books will not answer all of your child’s questions, they will at least help to deal, in a tentative way, with the most difficult questions a child asks:

Are You Sad, Little Bear?: A Book About Learning to Say Goodbye, by Rachel Rivett.


When Little Bear’s grandmother dies, the other animals in the forest share with him the concept of loss and reassure him that saying goodbye does not mean the forgetting about a loved one.

Bottled Sunshine, by Andrea Spalding.


Sammy learns to make jam during his last visit with his grandmother, and it is this memory of a fun-loving grandparent that sustains him when she passes away.

Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, by Tomie DePaola.


Four year old Tommy enjoys his relationship with his grandmother and great grandmother.  They are an integral part of his daily life.  Eventually, however, they die and Tommy must learn to deal with the fact of their loss.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages, by Leo Buscaglia.

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This is the classic story for dealing with death.  Freddie experiences the changing seasons along with his companion leaves.  Then, as the seasons change, he learns about the delicate balance between life and death.

What’s Heaven?, by Maria Shriver.


TV Personality Shriver wrote this book for her children when her grandmother, Rose Kennedy, died.  After her great-grandmother’s death, a girl learns about heaven by asking questions of her mother.  This book addresses the issue of heaven from a Catholic perspective.

I Miss You: A First Look at Death, by Pat Thomas.


A book to help children understand that death is part of life and that grief is a natural feeling when someone dies.

Sarah’s Grandma Goes to Heaven: A book About Grief, by Maribeth Boelts.


A young girl learns about death, funerals, and heaven when her grandmother dies of cancer.

Kaddish for Grandpa in Jesus’ Name, Amen, by James Howe.


Five year old Emily tries to understand her grandfather’s death by exploring the Christian and Jewish rituals that her interfaith family practices.

What Is Heaven Like?, Beverly Lewis.


Lewis, a Christian writer, shares her perspective of the afterlife. Wondering about heaven after the death of his grandfather, a boy questions his sister, a teacher, his parents and others about death and how he will see his grandfather, someday.

For Heaven’s Sake, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.


Rabbi Sasso explains heaven for Jewish children and others.  After being told that his grandfather went to heaven, Isaac tries to find out what heaven is.

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, by Laurie Krasny Brown.


In simple language, the author explains feelings that people may have about the death of a loved one and ways to honor the memory of the person who died.

Why Do People Die? Helping Your Child to Understand–With Love and Illustrations, by Cynthia MacGregor.


Explains death, its effect on the living, and the rituals, ceremonies and customs that are associated with loss.

And for the parents who need to explain death to a child:

When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses, by John W. James.


Compassionate manual addresses the nature of death and dispels myths about healing such as the statement that “time heals all wounds.”

Bereaved Children and Teens:  A Support Guide for Parents and Professionals.


Articles from professionals in several disciplines dealing with how to explain terminal illness, how to structure death education, and how to have rituals that help children and teens achieve closure.

How Do We Tell the Children? A Step-by-Step Guide for Helping Children from Two to Teen Cope When Someone Dies, Dan Schaefer.


An upfront and honest explanation on talking to children about death which includes discussions of traumatic death.

Written by Lois Rubin Gross, Senior Children’s Librarian

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