Helping Children Cope With the Death of a Grandparent
Considerations when guiding kids through the process
Image courtesy of Hancik/Shutterstock.com
Helping a child understand the death of a grandparent is a painful challenge many families must cope with at some point. This particular topic can be uncomfortable and difficult for people of all ages, yet it is one children are best helped with in an open and honest way.
How families choose to talk about life and death depends on a number of factors, including the family’s cultural beliefs and practices, and the current ages of the children involved in the discussion. Ideally, it is a conversation that evolves over time and weaves in losses that may be less significant, yet also important in thinking about this part of life — such as the death of a goldfish, or even flowers or plants. These smaller conversations lay the foundation that all living things have a lifespan with a beginning and an end.
Children of all cultural backgrounds and ages benefit from a family’s openness to talk about questions and feelings that are uncomfortable or painful. Such topics are often not brought up directly by children; instead, they may wait until an adult indicates that they are open to talking and listening.
Understanding the Loss in Context
Most of the time, a death in the family is related to old age and a child’s first exposure to this is around the loss of a grandparent. When you are able to, you can prepare your children ahead of time with conversations that are honest about a grandparent’s age and health. Consider a conversation that starts like this: “Grandma is getting very old. You may have noticed that she is slower and more tired than she used to be. These are signs that her body is getting older and she is going to die soon. It happens to all living things.”
Very young children are often comforted by the reassurance that death is not something they can “catch” from others and that adults, while they may feel sad, know and accept that it is a part of life.
Understanding a Parent’s Sadness
Children need help understanding why someone they usually view as strong and in control may be sad or crying. This can be frightening or unsettling, especially to very young children. Explaining why you are sad helps a child not only understand the context of your sadness, but also more about his or her own feelings. Young children may need additional reassurance about all of the parts of their life that will remain the same, and that sadness and interruptions in their routine are temporary.
The tradition of funerals is intended more for adults than children. Young children may not understand them, or may feel uncomfortable seeing so many adults crying — especially those on whom they depend for feelings of safety. If you are not able to be emotionally present to help your child understand what is happening at the funeral, ask someone else the child knows and trusts to assist and care for your child until you are able to be fully present.
Coming Together in Difficult Times
As with all challenges and times of hardship, experiencing the loss of someone important can also be a time for strengthening your family as you come together and grieve. Children learn a lot from how adults handle life’s challenges, and the questions they raise will help you understand how your children think about and experience the world.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.