Saying Goodbye: Talking to Kids About Death

Death is very difficult for young children to understand, and it can be tough for parents to explain. The best advice: Keep your answers as short and simple as possible, and use these responses as a model.

Q. My 4-year-old keeps asking me, "Mommy, why did Grandma die?" What should I say?

A. When a little kid asks such a big question, you may be tempted to soft-pedal the truth. Don't do it: Telling him that "Grandma went to sleep" or "We lost Grandma" will only backfire. "You might confuse your child or even make him afraid to go to sleep at night," says Parents advisor David Fassler, MD. clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, in Burlington.

Instead, say something like, "Your grandma died because she was very old and sick. She doesn't talk or eat or breathe anymore, and we won't see her again. But the love we had for her will stay with us forever." If it helps, you can compare a person's life to a tree's leaves, which bloom in the spring, then change color and die in the fall.

When Donna Maria Johnson's father died, she told her kids, Vanessa, then 5, and Brooks, then 3, that when people get very old, their bodies stop working, just like when a toy's batteries run out. "But then I explained that you can't replace a person's batteries," says the mom from Charlotte, North Carolina. "That made sense to them."

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