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My grandmother, my 3.5 year old daughter's great-grandmother, is sadly very ill and could pass away at any time within the next few weeks. My daughter has yet to experience death (e.g. a pet dying) and does not yet understand this concept. My wife and I are reasonably clear about how we would explain death and grieving to our daughter and help her cope. My concern is that my extended family are religious, and indeed my grandmother is a central figure in her church community.

There is no conflict within my family; we all happy accept each other's beliefs and get along, however I am concerned that the different approaches to dealing with grief will confuse my daughter and make things worse for her.

How do we cope with the inevitable talk about my grandmother having 'gone to heaven' during the eventual funeral and afterwards when will have explained things differently to my daughter?

She is quite perceptive and intelligent and I'm sure this is something she will pick up on. She also thinks very literally and doesn't tend to cope with uncertainty so well; she wants to know the exact answer to questions. During this emotional time, I'm not sure how well she would cope trying to learn a complex theological history as well as dealing with the loss of our loved one.

Does anyone have any advice or experience for navigating this situation?

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Would this work?

"When a person is very old, and their body isn't working well any more, there comes a time when the body stops living, and then we say that the person has died. But I believe that even though the person's body isn't with us any more, she lives on in our minds. We think of her, and remember her. And in that way, she is still with us, but without her body. It's the idea of her that continues.

"Some people call this 'heaven'. And they think of heaven as a high-up place where the idea of a person is after the body of the person has died. For me, heaven is just that place in our minds where we remember the person we love who died."

As time goes on, you can refine this and add details, and point out some differences between what the religious family members do and think and believe, and your own approach. Certainly, if she asks any questions during the next few weeks/months, you can answer them. But I wouldn't stress the differences just now, because this is a time in her life when it will be a positive experience for her to feel close to her relatives. That's what we want her to remember when she thinks back on this period. The closeness. Later, there will be plenty of time to share your respectful skepticism.

I remember my first son's concept of death was based, for a long time, on a dead fish he saw floating in a park that he saw and asked me about when he was quite small. But if your daughter hasn't experienced a dead animal, maybe you could pick out an example of a plant or flower that she's familiar with. If it's a plant or flower that made a vivid impression on her, so that the image of it is still stored in her mind -- so much the better!

  • This is fantastic. I haven't had to discuss this issue with my toddler yet, but I'm in OP's situation. Your answer keeps certain questions at bay surrounding religion while still addressing the specifics of the issue ("heaven"). Other answers I've seen around this and other similar issues tend to attack the religion discussion head on, something I'm not willing or prepared to do; I'd rather let my children discover religion on their own and make their own choices. – BryanC May 11 '15 at 5:13
  • I agree, this is a very nice approach (although the other answer is good too). I'll give it a few days before accepting to see what else comes up but this is a very good answer. – Bogdanovist May 11 '15 at 22:08
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How do we cope with the inevitable talk about my grandmother having 'gone to heaven' during the eventual funeral and afterwards when will have explained things differently to my daughter?

I would simply tell her the truth, and be prepared to tell her again and again, because she will ask/wonder about it again and again.

The truth is that things die. This idea can be explored in books for preschoolers, or in biological death around you: plants, butterflies, even leaves in autumn. Tell her that some people think there is a place where the soul goes after the body dies. In Christianity, people believe there is a place where a person goes to be with God, where they are happy, called heaven. Explain your own beliefs.

She also thinks very literally and doesn't tend to cope with uncertainty so well; she wants to know the exact answer to questions.

This is common for children this age. The usual preschooler's concept of death is that death isn't permanent. Explaining something that a child has no concept of (finality/permanence) is kind of almost exercise in futility, but which must be undertaken repeatedly.

Consider not taking her to the funeral, but having a commemorative "service" at home. Counter euphemisms she might hear from relatives like, "She has gone to sleep in the Lord," lest she fear going to sleep and waking up without you, or "she went away". (Imagine the fear your leaving for work might engender!)

There are books written for preschoolers on death. Look for them in your library. They can be very helpful.

There are references below which might be helpful in helping you to understand what might be happening in her mind.

How Children Understand Death & What You Should Say
Children And Grief
Children and Grief
Children's Understanding of Death
Children's Understanding of Death

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