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Helping your child understand what's happened to her grandpa is indeed a challenge, as toddlers can't comprehend the idea of death, or even that they will never see someone again. At the same time, children are very tuned in to the feelings of the important adults in their lives, so it is likely that your child understands that something sad has happened. It's important that you acknowledge this. Focus on addressing her feelings. You can say something like, "Pop-pop isn't here. I miss him too."
Until your child is between 2 and 3, she won't be able to understand more. If she asks questions, you can then explain that Grandpa is not coming back; that he died, which means that his body stopped working. Tell her this happens when people are very old or sick and doctors can't make their bodies better. Explain that Grandpa couldn't do things like eat or play outside anymore. This gives her a context she can relate to. If she asks whether Grandpa will ever come back, you should tell her the truth -- that he won't. If your child asks whether you or she will die, you can explain that your bodies are healthy and strong so you're not going to die now.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2004. Updated 2009
The answers from our experts are for educational purposes only. Please always refer to your child's pediatrician and mental health expert for more in-depth advice.