Dealing with death: how I told my daughter her grandfather had passed away

Guest post by Amanda RS
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Almost a year ago now, my father passed away. I received the news in slow motion; anyone who has heard this kind of news knows exactly what I mean by that. Of course I felt the initial pain of my own loss, but my attention immediately turned to my daughter. How was I going to tell my little girl (who at that time was two months shy of turning three and so in love with her “Umpaw”) that she would never see him again? How could I make her understand? More than anything, how could I tell her in a way that I felt was true to my beliefs?

Being that I am not a Christian, I faced a special dilemma. I, unlike so many others I know, did not have the option to simply tell her that he went to Heaven. I could not give her the comfort of promising to see him again. I am not saying there is not a Heaven, but considering myself an Agnostic, I could not find it in myself to tell her something I could not stand by fully. Even at that tender age, I felt that I owed their special relationship my truth.

After some of the initial arrangements were made I decided to simply sit her down and tell her. I did this softly, as any mother would, but I did so with a literal sense of things. I explained to her that later that day we would be going over to grandfather’s house, and before she could get excited, I quickly added that he would not be there. Of course she asked me “why?” (That word would of course become something I had to battle a lot from that point on.) I told her that his body had stopped working, he had died, and we would not be able to see him again. She then asked me if the doctors could make his body work again. To which I had to reply with a simple no.

From that point I went into a diluted bit of science. I told her, to the best of my ability, the sequence of events in which this tragedy had happened. She had lots of questions, and I had few solid answers, but I tried. She cried. I cried. We held each other. However terrible that moment was, the worst part was over. I had introduced to my young child the concept of death, and breaking that innocence in her was the hardest thing I have ever done.

Over the next few weeks our home was filled with a lot of questions, talk of what happens after life, and random moments of spontaneous sobbing, from the both of us. The questions have dwindled over the past year and we are finding our new normal. We both still have our moments of reflection and tears, and we both still miss him everyday, but it does get easier. She learned to accept.

My father was cremated last summer. My little family made the long and emotional journey from Texas to his home state of Michigan to spread him there, according to his wishes. My beautiful little girl held my hand, stepped into the river, where my father played as a child, and helped me put him to rest there. With our family surrounding us, we watched as he trickled, a beautiful golden stream, down the bends of his childhood. She looked to me and said, “Mommy, he’s everywhere.” To which I responded, “Yes baby, he is.”

If you choose to take a different path, or you are of a faith that defines, for you, what happens after death, then your solution may be relatively simple. Well, as simple as these things can be. Regardless of what works for you, remember the first steps are the hardest. Everything after that is simply healing. Trust your heart and give your child their due credit. They feel loss, sadness, and most importantly love as strong if not stronger than the rest of us. My daughter will still ask occasionally if we can “fix” her grandfather and bring him back, and those days are always hard. Most days though, she tells me he is growing into beautiful flowers, making the world beautiful for her. Those are the days when I know that she is at peace and I did the best I could.

Comments on Dealing with death: how I told my daughter her grandfather had passed away

  1. I’m sorry for your loss, and you handled this absolutely beautifully. “He’s everywhere” is probably one of the most elegant explanations I’ve ever heard – kids have such a knack for breaking things down to their most essential.

    • Thank you for your condolences. My little one has a big mind and a big heart. I learned that if I give her the chance, she can handle a lot more than I once thought.

  2. My parents and my husbands grandparents are not in good health. I know I will be having this conversation with my children (2 years old and one in the belly) some time in the coming years. I hope we have more time with them but you never know what tomorrow brings.

    I have actually thought at length and even done some searches on what to say to kids about death when science is more real than religion in a family. This article is very helpful. Thank you.

    • I know that the journey you will eventually embark on is a frightening one. I am so glad that this is helpful to you. The first steps are the hardest. She will still look at pictures and cry, but that’s just part of loving someone so much.

  3. This was beautiful and eloquent. I was raised in the Christian faith and while there are many things that I still cling to, the idea of heaven is something that has caused a lot of (no pun intended) soul searching. The idea that your father is everywhere? What a wonderful comfort for your daughter.

    • I was also raised in the Christian faith and still hold some attachments to it, but it just isn’t what I feel. Thank you for your kind words.

  4. Thank you, Amanda, for sharing such a painful, yet poignant experience. Your daughter’s perspective is unique and, in subtle ways, all the more informed because of its innocence.

  5. Thank you for this. I have no idea when I might need to have this conversation with my kids, but this feels like a wonderful primer.

    A thing that made me comfortable with leaving behind the last vestiges of a religion I no longer believed in was discovering the Symphony of Science videos (easily Googleable) — the one that sticks in my head most is Carl Sagan’s line “we are made of stardust.” This is literally true, that everything in the universe is made out of other components of the universe. The magic of this is so moving for me, and it’s an idea I cling to when I imagine explaining death to my children.

    • A primer is exactly what I wanted to achieve. I knew there was no way I could make her understand fully, but I wanted to give her the chance to try. I am not certain of when the time will come when she has a complete grasp of loss. At least for now, she can at least understand that just because she can’t have him back doesn’t mean he loves her less or she him, and that the people we love never really leave us.

  6. I just wanted to say I can relate to this. My mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 47 on February 10th. It will be two months tomorrow. I am still struggling with my loss and the realization that my daughter will never see her grandma again…or have that grandmother figure in her life and everything that encompasses. I mourn the loss of my daughter’s grandma more than the loss of my mother in a sense. My daughter is a little younger than yours (will be 2 in just under a month) but I sat her down and explained that grandma is all gone, and when she points to her picture on the counter and exclaims “grandma!!!” I just explain to her that yes that is grandma, but you won’t see her anymore because grandma is gone. I tell her that she loves her and is proud of her. I am an atheist so like you, I don’t tell her grandma is in heaven and all that…just gone. Every time she points at grandmas picture and I tell her she gives me a strange look, like “how can grandma be all gone?” which kills me.

    You wrote, “I had introduced to my young child the concept of death, and breaking that innocence in her was the hardest thing I have ever done.” and that is totally how I feel. However, like I said my daughter is still a bit young. When I did sit her down to tell her she just kept saying, “mommy glasses!!” because I was crying so I didn’t have my glasses on. It was so hard because I wanted her to understand why mommy was crying and why I was saying grandma is gone (I also went on a science tangent greeted by a confused look) but in a way I am glad she is too young to understand yet, or have memories of her grandma. Her innocence is one thing that has kept me sane through this…and I am not looking forward to the day that she can really comprehend what happened and that there really is no more grandma.

    I am sorry for your father’s passing. I hope that you and your daughter continue to find healing in the beauty of the world.

    • I am so sorry for your loss. I completely understand the notion of mourning the loss of their relationship in more of way than your own. I am sure that it is because, as mothers, we feel for our children so much more than we feel for ourselves. You are doing great, keep your head up.

  7. I am lost in admiration at how well you handled this. I have always worried about this for when I have children and you did it perfectly.

  8. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    You know, I am a catholic (one of the “bad” ones) and your approach makes way more sense to me because I believe in science and facts too and I feel that saying a kid that “he’s in heaven” is just as right as “the stork brought you here”.

    Kids understand a lot, they can take the truth as long as you use the right words to explain it and hiding the facts of life only makes things worse on the long term. I hope I don’t have to explain this to my son anytime soon but I hope I can do it as perfectly as you did.

    BTW, your girl is so awesome 😀

  9. Thank you for this. In the last year we have lost my Dad, two Uncles, and most recently my brother. I have a six year old and explaining each death to her is the hardest part for me. It still comes up, we’re so surrounded by death she thinks about it often. The “he is everywhere” particularly hits home and I think next time she asks I will use this… Really, Thank you…

  10. Last week we had to say goodbye to our awesome cat, Oliver, due to a very aggressive cancer. My daughter, just over 2, came into the bedroom after he was gone, climbed up on the bed (where he’d always laid) and asked, “Where’s Ollie?” I simply told her, (not being sure where I stand on the whole heaven thing) “Ollie’s not here anymore.” She saw me crying and said in a very concerned voice, “you cryin’? sad?” I said, “Yes honey, I’m sad.” She looked at me for a few seconds and then said, “Watch George?” (as in Curious George) Oh, to be two. We haven’t spread Oliver’s ashes yet but I like “he is everywhere”, I think it sounds hopeful and would help make a difficult situation a little easier.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry for the loss of your father.

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