Once friends and relatives left after paying their respects, Travis' mother took him and his brother to the casket that held the body of their great-grandfather. Travis' mother took time to answer questions from her sons. She shared the family's beliefs concerning what happens after death. The funeral director gently offered to answer any remaining questions. Travis, confused by the split casket lid that covered the lower half of his great-grandfather's body, looked up and wondered, "Where are Pop-Pop's feet?"

Find Teachable Moments

As parents, we like to protect our children from hard things. We would like their lives to be rainbows and lollipops for as long as possible. However, death is a part of life. Children develop healthy, appropriate responses to death when parents are honest about death.

When your preschooler asks about the dead squirrel in the street that was hit by a car, speak honestly. If your child comes across a dead bird, explain that it is dead. Tell her that the bird cannot breathe or move or eat anymore, as it did when it was alive. Share that when animals die, room is made for new living creatures. If a pet goldfish dies, rather than replace it in hopes that your child does not notice, allow her to experience the loss. Trust that although she may be sad, she is also resilient.

Use Clear, Simple Terms

Our society is uncomfortable with death. We have many euphemisms for it. When speaking with young children, avoid saying things like, "Grandpa went to sleep," as that could make children fearful of sleep, or "We lost Grandpa," as the word "loss" may confuse a young child who understands things literally. Use terms like "die" and "death." While these words may sound harsh, they are appropriate for young children's developmental stage.

Similarly, saying "Grandma had a heart attack" might lead a child to think someone "attacked" Grandma's heart. If you are not sure your child understands the medical terms you use, ask her to explain what your words mean. If she cannot, then try simpler terms.

Involve Your Child

If a neighbor dies, invite your child to help make a meal for the family. If a pet frog dies, invite her to create a ritual. She might decorate a box for the frog to be placed in before it is buried. If a family member dies, describe the ceremonies in which your family will take part. Ask her if she would like to attend a celebration. If she does, choose an adult who is available and willing to take her home if she wishes to leave early. Never force a child to attend if she does not want to.

Allow the child to create her own traditions, too. She may want to plant Grandma's favorite flower or play Grandma's favorite game. She might want to bake the cookies Grandma liked. Whatever she chooses to do could become a way to celebrate future anniversaries of the death.

Make Grieving OK

Adults often hesitate to show children their grief. Susan Wilensky, a Bereavement Counselor at Montgomery Hospice, notes that one of the best things parents can do for their children is to deal with their own grief. She wants parents to know that it is OK for children to see you cry. They will see that eventually you will also laugh and play. Be sure to talk about the person who died, even if you cry when you do. That will let your child know that it is OK to share her own memories of the person, even if she cries when she does, too. Sharing memories together is healthy and healing.

Know that Children Grieve Differently

Wilensky notes that adults hold their grief and process it, whereas children go in and out of their grief more fluidly. Joey might ask about Grandpa very intensely one moment, and then, in the next, he is off running, playing and laughing. This is normal for a child and is not reason for concern.

Also, while many adults like to talk through their grief, children often work through their grief with projects. Maria may want to decorate a special box in which to keep special items that belonged to her brother, such as his favorite baseball card, his toy car and a favorite marble. John may want to make a collage of pictures of himself with his Grandpa.

Get Help for Your Own Grief

Losing a parent, a spouse, a child or another loved one can be overwhelming. You may not feel that you can be there in the way you would like to be for your child and her grief. If that is the case, remember to reach out for help. During this time, it's OK to rely on relatives, friends and neighbors for support. Ask a friend to take your child out for pizza or a trip to the library or the park once a week so you can have some free time. Your child will experience the support from another adult in her life. Take the time you need for your own grief. Contact a therapist or reach out to one of the twenty organizations in this area that offer grief support, including the Wendt Center (Washington, DC), Montgomery Hospice (Montgomery County, MD) and Capital Caring (Northern Virginia).

Travis was relieved when the funeral director lifted the bottom of the casket lid to reveal that Pop-Pop's feet were, indeed, still there. Before Travis saw his great-grandfather's body in the casket, his parents talked honestly about death whenever it came up. Travis had learned that his parents were "askable" parents. Travis had cuddled with his parents as they read picture books after his cat died. He was told what to expect before the funeral home visit. He was able to move through his grief, thanks to his parents' willingness to be honest, clear and respectful. They themselves grieved and provided the space for Travis' grief and questions, too.


Resources: Books for Grieving Children (Recommended by Montgomery Hospice)

  • "When Dinosaurs Die" by Laurene Krasny Brown & Marc Brown
  • "Double-Dip Feelings: Stories to Help Children Understand Emotions" by Barbara S. Cain
  • "My Grandpa Died Today" by Joan Fassler
  • "Poppy's Chair" by Karen Hesse
  • "A Terrible Thing Happened" by Margaret M. Holmes
  • "When Someone Dies" by Sharon Greenlee
  • "When My Mommy Died" and "When My Daddy Died" by Janice M. Hammond
  • "Annie and the Old One" by Miska Miles
  • "Don't Despair on Thursdays" by Adolph Moser
  • "The Saddest Time" by Norma Simon
  • "Badger's Parting Gifts" by Sunsa Varley
  • "The Tenth Good Thing about Barney" by Judith Viorst

Maureen McElroy, LGMFT, is a family therapist in Bethesda (maureenmcelroy.com) and a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), which offers classes and workshops to parents of children ages 2½ to 18. PEPparent.org