Explaining Death to a Grandchild

It's not an easy topic, but there are ways to talk to a child about loss

By Jodi M. Webb

As adults, we barely know how to discuss death among ourselves, let alone with our grandchildren. When our family or friends are dealing with a death, our first instinct may be to protect a child, and his or her innocence, from sadness and confusion. By ignoring a death, though, we aren’t helping our children, points out Kathleen McCue, M.A., director of children’s programs at The Gathering Place, a Cleveland-based cancer support center.

“No one wants children to have to face the loss of death. But when it enters into a child's life, there is an opportunity to teach him or her about grief, how to cope, and how to go on with life in times of mourning," says McCue. "Children may not understand death — who does? — but they are aware that it happens and need adult guidance when it touches their lives."

When Death Comes Suddenly

When her sons' great-grandmother died suddenly, the first thing Angela Pandolfo Roy’s family did was have a meeting to decide how to tell the two young boys. The family resolved together that Roy alone should be the one to tell her sons about the loss. “We thought it might be intimidating or scary if two or more grown-ups approached them,” says Roy.

Because they had been the caretakers and were grieving themselves, Roy’s in-laws didn’t immediately play a significant role in their grandsons' lives the days following their great-grandmother’s death.

But grieving is not a one-day-only event. Now, months after the loss, the boys' grandmother is playing a more valuable part in helping them understand death and how to cope with it. She and her sister are also in the process of going through the great-grandmother's things, deciding which mementos to give the great-grandchildren, including Roy's two sons.

This sharing of keepsakes and memories reminds Roy of the way her own grandmother kept the memory of Roy's great-uncle Joey, who died when she was 4, alive in the family's memory. “I can’t exactly remember Uncle Joey," says Roy, "but because my grandmother told me so many stories throughout my life, I know about him — especially about the two of us together.”

When There's Time to Prepare

When a long-term illness becomes terminal, there is more time to prepare a child for the eventual outcome and to help him or her say good-bye. Too often adults hide a terminal prognosis from children, which deceives them, says McCue.

"When someone is dying in the family, it is useful for children to be included in family communication, to be given honest, developmentally-appropriate information," she says, "and to be allowed to express their reactions and emotions."

While children may initially react with sadness and fear, in the long run they will feel more trust, achieve more closure, and be more prepared to handle loss as adults, she says.

“I have many clients who say, 'I want to talk about it, but my grandchild’s parents don’t want me to.' I firmly believe the parent is the primary decision-maker, but that grandparents have the right to say, ‘This is what I think we should do,' and most importantly, 'I don’t want to lie to the children,'" says McCue.

Show Them How You Coped

When a loved one is very ill and death is likely, Karen Deerwester, a family therapist and parent educator for FamilyTime Inc., a coaching and consulting firm specializing in parent/child development, recommends talking about deaths that occurred in the past and therefore are less emotionally charged.

“As grandparents, talk about your loved ones who have died — your grandchild's great-great-grandparents, a sibling, or a friend. Share photos and stories that celebrate the lives of the deceased,” suggests Deerwester. By sharing your experience of getting through the sadness of death, she says, your grandchildren will see the love they have and the memories they share with a person can continue after death.

Answer the Tough Questions

Deerwester encourages grandparents to follow a child’s lead. “Answer instant questions with simple answers, and invite your grandchild to ask more,” she says. Be prepared for a child to ask about what happens after death, too, and remember that family members may have different opinions about life after death.

“Children can understand that parents believe one thing while grandparents may believe something else,” says Deerwester. And even though it may be hard, she adds, or we may not want to, it can be much easier to talk about these issues with our children and grandchildren before a death occurs.

Life Goes On

The effect of a death on a grandchild varies depending on his or her age, relationship with the deceased, and personality. One thing is predictable — every child will need to continue to eat supper, do homework, and go to basketball practice. Deerwester encourages grandparents to help their grandchild maintain his or her normal routines when a parent is grieving.

As grandparents, you can also be the ones to give children a respite from the sadness of a household in mourning. When parents are grieving, they may be temporarily unable to concentrate on upholding family traditions such as going swimming at the local pool on opening day or baking a double-chocolate cake for an upcoming birthday. As grandparents, you can stand in for parents during such troubling times.

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