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Telling a 3 year old “Grandma’s dying”

Oh my goodness! How am I going to do that?

Your Mum has been fighting cancer for a long time now and she is getting close to death and the time has come to tell your 3 year old daughter, Mary (I’m giving her a name to make it easier for myself).

You’re thinking, “I don’t know what to say or how to say it? Should I even mention it because she won’t understand anyway”, and everyone is telling you what to do?

Some of the conversations you’re having with yourself start:
“Will I do more harm than good?”
“Will it damage Mary, knowing that Grandma is dying?”
“How do I tell Mary?”
“I don’t know what to say”
“How do I even start a conversation like that?”
“I don’t want her to see me cry!”
“What if she gets too upset and we can’t stop crying?”

So, here’s what you do

Mary knows that something is going on. Everyone’s upset, they’re all crying, then going quiet when Mary’s around. She probably has lots of questions and makes up lots of answers for herself. Kids fill in the gaps with their fantastic imaginations and this is what can be damaging to them.

The best advice I can give

The best advice I can give you is to talk to her. Tell her that Grandma is dying. She might ask, “What’s dying?” Your answer, “That’s when Grandma’s heart’s not working properly, she can’t hear, she can’t see or breathe any more like she used to. Her body is just going to stop working soon.”

When she asks, “Why is everyone sad?” Be matter of fact, “Because Grandma is dying”. You can go on to say, “You know how Grandma has been sick for a long time…” but you probably won’t need to.

Kids from 3-5 years

From 3 to 5 years old, kids just need their questions answered. You don’t need to go into lengthy explanations. Just answer that specific question at that specific time.

They will ask the same question over and over again. Answer it as if you haven’t heard the question before.

Kids are trying to process what has been heard, to make sense of it in their own little world.

Give lots of hugs and kisses

Encourage them to play and have tons of fun

Keep up the daily routines

Let them talk and cry, just be there to listen

Tips to help Mary grieve

Help Mary feel secure in her family and that she’s a part of the circle of life. Grandma is Mary’s favourite person in the whole world (besides Mummy and Daddy of course), let her create memories her own way. Let Mary be Mary.

You can help her to do this by:

Taking photos of Mary and Grandma together
Letting Mary sit with Grandma or just play around her
Ask Grandma how she wants to be with Mary
Drawing pictures for Grandma

I’m sure you and your family can get together and brainstorm some more ideas.

Death and Grandma

When you’re talking about death with Mary, its best not to talk about heaven, God, angels or saying we “Lost Grandma overnight”. From my experience, this causes more worry and anxiety. Mary will be looking for Grandma because in her world, when she loses something, it will always be found. Deal with her fears and concerns immediately.

If you answer her questions vaguely, she’ll fill the gaps with her own imagination.

Involve Mary in as much as you can but use words that she can understand. Let her know it’s okay to ask questions (even if it’s the same question over and over and over again) and it’s okay to cry. You are all losing a cherished loved one and crying is a normal thing that people do when they feel sad.

Book recommendations

Rather than buying storybooks on grief for children, I find it more helpful for all to make your own book. A personal book of “Grandma and Me.” Mary can read the story and look at the pictures again and again. Write anything down that Mary says. What kids say is priceless. This helps all the family to cope with their grief too. Remember you will learn so much from Mary about your own grief. Kids just say it like it is. Listen to what she has to say and marvel in her wisdom. By doing all these things you will help Mary understand and cope with her grief as well as your own. Talking in Mary’s language makes it easier for all. You don’t have to tip toe around the subject of death. Keep it simple. You are helping Mary experience life, love and security.

I hope this has helped someone? It might even be your story.

Please leave a comment below. I love hearing your stories.

Contact me to talk about what you need regarding talking with children about death, any other issues or concerns.


  1. Joyce

    Hi Cait,
    I sent this link on to my friend’s who are the other grandparents. All agree they have to present the same story and there is no point talking about angels and Heaven if someone else is a non-believer and says to the child something different when the time comes. I said they should contact you and take the little girl along if you agree it is a good thing and they feel out of their depth. Love Joyce xx

    • Cait Wotherspoon

      Hi Joyce,
      I’m glad to see that they all want to support this little girl as best they can. I would love to see her and her family. It’s very important that her grief is recognised.
      Warm wishes

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