Explaining Death to Children–Without Religion

It has been about a month since I lost my grandma. Just before that, I also learned my stepfather has cancer (the same kind my biological father had a few months prior). And, my babies graduated from their preschool programs and are reaching big milestones by starting their new schools. So it has been an exceptionally long month filled with uncontrollable tears at random times, a constant shift between grieving and numbness, and an overall feeling of physical and emotional emptiness. To say I have not been myself is a massive understatement. I haven’t been sleeping well, eating well, or – to be honest – parenting well. Despite the emotional pain, I think the most difficult part has been trying to parent while grieving – especially trying to answer my children’s questions about death.


My 3-year-old son was with me when I first learned my grandma had died. He did not fully understand what was wrong and why Mommy was crying all the time. When he would catch me crying, he would give me a big hug and kiss and say “Mommy sad that Grandma Susie died? I give Mommy kiss. Mommy happy now?” Which was so sweet, it would make me cry more – just for a different reason. How terrible is it that the littlest family member was taking on the role of caregiver and trying to take care of Mommy? Cue more mom guilt…

My 5-year-old daughter asked all the difficult questions. She has a basic understanding of death from when she was 2 years old and “her” dog (at my in-laws’ house) died. At that time, I did a lot of research on how best to talk to her about death. The experts said to keep it simple but truthful–since that age does not seem to really comprehend Heaven or spirits, or any other complex religious concepts. We told her the dog was old and her body stopped working. Her body may be gone and buried, but we have a lot of great memories of being with her that we can hold onto.

Since we had already had the “death talk” when she was 2 years old, I thought we would just have to explain it to our 3-year-old. Nope–wrong again Mom! This time, the 5-year-old’s questions were a lot more complex and she wanted a lot more detail, which made it even harder for me to not only explain, but to do so without crying and remaining patient.

The following are some of the conversations we had at the most random and often ill-timed moments:

Child (at school pickup): “How did Grandma’s body stop working?”

Mom: “The doctor found a leaking valve in her heart, so it was kind of like having a hole in her heart.”

Child: “Where did the hole in her heart come from?”

Mom: “I really don’t know–I’m not a cardiologist.”

Child (to teacher): “My grandma Susie died because she had a hole in her heart.”

Child (to food delivery driver): “My grandma Susie died because she had a hole in her heart.”

Child (on the airplane): “Where is her body going to be buried?”

Mom: “I’m not sure yet. She lived in Iowa most of her life, but now she lives in Colorado with Grandpa. We’ll have to ask Grandpa.”

Child (at memorial): “I REALLY want to know where Grandma’s body is going to be buried!!!”

Mom: “Well she was actually cremated. So her ashes may stay in this box and go home with Grandpa, or he may put some of the ashes on the ground. Grandma even wanted some of the ashes to be run through a slot machine.”

Child (still at memorial–thankfully it was at my dad’s house): “What’s cremated? How did her body turn to ashes? What’s a slot machine?”

Mom (takes deep breath, grabs a piece of paper and a lighter): “Let’s go outside and I’ll show you.” (Lights paper) “See how the paper is turning into ashes? That’s what Grandma wanted to happen to her body, so the ashes from her body could go to more than one place. Some can stay with Grandpa, some can go back to Iowa, some can continue to play her favorite games, and some can go in the ground to go back to nature.”

Child: “Oh okay. I’m going to draw Grandma a picture to keep by her box so she will remember me.”

Mom (hugs the crap out of her and starts crying): “Grandma would love that. She loved you so much.”

These conversations have continued throughout the past month. My daughter is constantly drawing pictures of Grandma to give me. It has been fascinating to see her take ownership of her grieving process. She understands Grandma’s body stopped working and her ashes are in a box with Grandpa for now, and when he decides where to put them Grandma’s body will go back to nature. She understands we still have amazing memories of Grandma, which have come through in her drawings. She says she misses Grandma, but is thankful she got to make memories with her, especially picking peaches.


Death is a hard enough concept, to which even experts do not have conclusive answers. We did not want to complicate it by adding religion at this time. We will teach our children different religions at an appropriate point in their intellectual and emotional development. Right now, however, we wanted to focus on the death of Grandma and the accompanying grief process.

We can look to the memories, pictures, gifts, and letters she had given us over the years to help with emotion coaching. And when in doubt of what else to do…we will make her famous chocolate chip cookies (although no one can make them like she did).


Helpful articles on the death of a pet:







Helpful articles on helping children deal with death:





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