Talking to Kids about Death: Where did Grandfather go now that he is dead?

Today, we talked to Elijah about death. This was certainly not the kind of conversation that I wanted to have with my 5-year old son, but it is sometimes the kind of conversation that cannot be avoided. 

 Explaining Death 

Today, early in the morning, we received a phone call that for an inexplicable or strange reason, we knew or sensed that would bring us bad news. It was a call from a family member to tell us that my husband's grandfather have passed away last night. Grandfather Albert was almost 97 years old when he died. Regardless of his age and the fact that he had Alzheimer's disease, his health was stable, so his death was unexpected.

Our 5-years old son, Elijah, asked me, Mommy, what happened with Grandfather Albert? Why is Daddy sad? As I was driving my son to school, I explained him that Grandfather Albert had died the night before. To make certain the he understood the situation, I told him that Grandfather Albert was very old and that he was a little bit sick. I also told him that Albert had a good life, worked hard during his whole life, and had certainly done many good things. 

As surprising as this may sound, I believe that at his young age, Elijah is capable of understanding that death is a normal part of life. He knows that people and animals have to die one day, especially when they get old or when they are sick. He is also able to comprehend that when someone or something dies, you cannot see the person or the thing anymore; they don't come back anymore. They are physically gone from your life, and all that remains are memories.

I don't recall exactly when it was the first time that we talked to Elijah about death. I think it was when he asked me about my father. My Dad passed away about 7 years ago, so Elijah only knows him from pictures and memories that I have shared with him. He often asks me questions about my Dad. He knows that he will never be able to meet him, but he is not scared to talk about him. I always share with my son the memories of the good moments that I spent with my father. I also tell him about all the things that my father taught me and how he helped me to love maths.

But, I have to admit that it was the death of our lizard pet, Jumbi, that taught Elijah about the dead of a loved one. Elijah was used to see Jumbi in its terrarium. He enjoyed his presence in the living room, and certainly liked to feed him. So, when Jumbi died, it was really the first time that Elijah experienced a loss. Although almost a year have passed since the death of Jumbi, Elijah still talks about him. He knows that he will never see Jumbi again, but he still likes to talk about his memories of interactions with his pet.

Where is Grandfather Albert now?

So, where is Grandfather now Mommy? Where did he go? Is he in Heaven?

I am not certain what is the best way to approach these questions, but I like to use my cultural and religious beliefs for the answers. So, I said: "Grandfather is now in Heaven with God". My son said to me: "Oh! he is now there with Jumbi and your father, Mommy".

It may not be the best answer, or even the most realistic answer, but it is the one answer that works for us, my son and I, now. Religion plays an important role in our family, and we often talk about God in our house. So, I don't feel that I am confusing Elijah by telling him that when someone dies, he/she/it goes to Heaven to be with God. At 5-year old, I don't believe that my son is ready to talk about a spiritual place or any other abstract concept that is often associated with death.

If there is one thing we can be certain of in life, it's that eventually we will die. Thus, I believe that it's important to be honest and open with children when they ask questions about death. Having said this, I also think that it's essential that we're mindful and careful with the answers or explanations that we provide to them. Some children may be ready for big and more elaborate explanations, but others just need more time and simple answers. 

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