My 95-year-old grandmother is about to pass away and I want to prepare my 4.5-year-old daughter who was supposed to visit her soon. Even though she lives far away, my daughter has visited her several time (about 3 times per year) but I assume it's a different conversation if she sees her every day. My concern is that I don't want to scare her or freak her about about death in general.

What is the appropriate conversation to have if any? Should I not mention the word "death", should I explain it in abstract terms. How do you tell a 4.5-year-old kid about the death of her great grandma?


2 Answers 2


My son just turned 5 and we've had a few not-so-close family members die (nothing as closely related as a great-grandmother) and some pets.

My son first started mentioning "death" around age 3 1/2 or 4 probably and I was a little surprised at how much he understood about death in general (that it means that the person or animal has left and won't be returning). Where he learned this stuff, I have no clue or if he just sort of figured it out organically.

My general rule when discussing stuff like this with my son is to keep it simple, know what points I feel need to be covered, and more or less allow him to lead the conversation once I've introduced it. Abstract doesn't work for 4 1/2 year olds--they are very concrete individuals at that age and being vague or abstract in how you approach it is likely to lead to more confusion and, ultimately, more questions. Don't get me wrong--questions are great, they just might not be the type of questions that are especially helpful to the situation. Does she know anything about death at all? Having to explain death in general is a different situation than having to simply insert a loved one's death into her all ready constructed framework. If you don't all ready know, then ascertaining this might take some gentle probing or maybe some creative role-play with some Barbie dolls (oops, Barbie fell and is "dead" and see how she responds to that. I know, it's macabre, but it might give you more insight than simply asking her what she knows).

If you have any particular religious beliefs, then now would probably be a good time to insert them. If not, then now would be a good time for you to decide how you might respond to questions like, "Where did grandma go?" "Will we see her again?" "Why did she have to die?" etc. She might not ask any of these questions. She might ask these and more, but at least if she does ask you will have a pretty good answer even if it's "I don't know".

If you plan on taking her to the funeral/wake/burial service/etc., you might want to prepare her for that. It could be disconcerting for her to see her great-grandmother lying in a casket, or for her to see other family members obviously upset and/or crying.

My best friend's father passed away a year ago and it wasn't until a couple of months after the funeral that her daughter (who was 5 at the time) really started asking questions about death and dying. So even if she doesn't say much now or ask many questions now, she might in a few weeks. As an aside, my best friend's father was cremated and she still hasn't shared that bit of information with her daughter.

  • Great answer. I used a similar approach with my 3-year old son; only problem was a family member who told him about "Going to Jesus' House", which just led to a lot of confusion. He did fine at the funeral though, and even brought a tissue to his grandmother at the podium when she started crying (entirely on his own, which was darling). The service exceeded his attention span though, so he needed to be taken to go explore.
    – Bryce
    May 4, 2013 at 4:43
  • Yikes! I hadn't thought about other people inserting religious connotations. It's not really a problem for us, but if you're not religious but other family members are it could be very confusing! Yeah, if a kid isn't accustomed to sitting through services, a funeral service might be a bit taxing for them. My 5-year-old could handle a decently lengthy funeral, but he sits through church with us every Sunday. My 2-year-old could most definitely not handle more than about 1/2 an hour.
    – Meg Coates
    May 4, 2013 at 6:39

There are a number of picture books that can help in this situation. Try:

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie with Robert Ingpen explains the life cycle using humans, trees, and animals.

Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola tells about a four-year-old coming to terms with his great grandmother's death.

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst takes us through the grief process for a boy whose cat Barney has died.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia talks about life and death within the context of a tree's seasons.

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown is in a question-answer format and geared toward ages 4-8.

You may find these and other books at your local library. They are usually kept together in the children's nonfiction section under 155.9

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