Here are several suggestions to help a child better understand and cope with the sadness and tears all around when a loved one dies:
1. BE HONEST AND DIRECT. Children often interpret what they hear literally. If you tell them that grandpa is "sleeping," the child will expect that sleep to end as all sleep does. If you say "he went on a long trip," that too tells the child that grandpa will be back eventually. And, if the child is allowed to see the body in the casket, either of these euphemisms will only serve to confuse. Be honest. Say "grandpa has died."
2. LISTEN - EXPLAIN - ANSWER. Ask the child what he or she knows about the situation. Children often know (or surmise) far more than adults give them credit for. If the deceased has been sick for a long time, it is very likely that the child knows that death is the natural outcome. If death is from an auto accident or other crisis, he or she might understand that as well, at least in part. Find out what they know and understand before jumping in. Then explain how life and death work. If you are a person of faith this discussion is considerably easier in that the afterlife has probably already become a part of the child's basic knowledge. The goal is to clear up misconceptions and misinformation about death and dying. If the child is young, saying that a grandparent's body "stopped working" or "could not be fixed" is a good, simple explanation. Older children will have questions about mortality and the "spirit." Answer these as honestly and straight forwardly as you possibly can.
3. BE THE ADULT - BUT LET KIDS BE KIDS. Just because you have been focusing on death and dying for days or weeks practically continuously, don't assume the child has been. Children have a remarkable ability to be serious one moment and silly the next. In fact, that ability is often disconcerting to adults. But play is one of the ways children cope with loss.
4. BE AWARE. Children usually handle death far better than adults. But be aware of their moods and behaviors. Acting out, hugging excessively, inability to sleep, or complaint of physical ailments may be signals of an inability to cope effectively. In such cases, talk things out and consider seeing a child grief counselor.