A friend of mine has a four-year-old who recently lost two of her grandparents: her dad's father and her mom's mother. My friend explained to me that her daughter asks about them all the time and that she often wonders: what to tell her? What will she understand? After speaking with other parents who’ve lost loved ones and doing some cyber-research, here’s the most useful advice I have found:
Bereavement experts believe children deserve and need to know the truth about death. If we don't tell them what really happened what they imagine will be far worse. Softening the truth with white lies and euphemisms will only create problems, and it can leave them more frightened and confused than reassured.
For example, if we simply tell them that grandpa was so good that God wanted them with Him, they may fear being good. If we tell them that grandma has gone to sleep, they may fear going to bed. If we tell them that Daddy went on a long trip, they may believe that Daddy has abandoned them. If we tell them that death is darkness and nothingness, they may become afraid of the dark. If we tell them that their grandmother is in heaven and talk about what a great place heaven is and then they see us crying, they’ll be confused.
Instead it is important to be truthful with your child and to balance the sad news with emotional honesty. You can tell him or her things like, “Grandma died and we believe that she is in heaven. It’s a wonderful place, but we will miss her a lot. I’m glad she got to go to heaven, but I wish she could have stayed longer. She also wishes she could have stayed longer.”
Child-focused activities can also nurture a healthy dialogue about death. Giving children permission to grieve as well as opportunities to express that grief in safe ways is all part of helping them cope and grow through life's losses and transitions. Children who learn that feelings are simply feelings and they don't have to hide them or feel ashamed, are that much better at learning about the life long process of healthy mourning.