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Home / Articles / Columnists / Teaching from the Heart /  The Impending Death of a Grandparent
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Thursday, July 5,2012

The Impending Death of a Grandparent

What to Say to Children

By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller  


Grandma Carson has been diagnosed with cancer. She is looking weak and thin. She does not have long to live. What do you say to your children?


Grandpa Wilson doesn’t drive a car anymore. He walks with a cane now. It´s obvious he is slowing down. What do you say to your children?

Grandma Garcia was just admitted to the hospital yesterday. Your children have seen you crying, but they are unaware of the specifics of the situation. What do you say to them?

These are delicate situations, ones that every family will have to face sooner or later. Delicate situations call for delicate responses. In order to help you and your family deal with the impending death of a grandparent, we offer the following suggestions.

1. Conversation is necessary here.

Death is abstract and scary to many children. It often represents the unknown to them. A general rule of thumb is to be open and honest. Give truthful responses to children´s questions and concerns.

2. Do not attempt to hide the impending death of a grandparent from your children. They are aware something is happening. If they are void of information they will fill in the blanks with their imaginations.

3. Age matters. This requires different conversations with different age children. One conversation does not fit all. What you tell a teen is much different from what you tell a five-year-old. Give information in age-appropriate language and amounts. With young children it is important to talk about death on a more concrete level. Talk about how the body wears out from use and how the heart muscle gets tired and stops working. Tell them, "Grandpa has a sickness in his body call cancer. It´s going to be difficult for him to work through at this time in his life."

4. Give them the essential information and leave out the details. Err on the side of less information. If they want to know more, they will ask. Let them come to you if they want further information.

5. Talk about the life cycle. People and animals are born, grow to maturity, and gradually get older. Explain what happens when the body gets older, when it is filled with sickness. Tell them how the body begins to slow down as people get older.

6. This is where you can bring in your religious beliefs if you choose. If going on to heaven or reincarnation is another step in the life cycle in your belief system, now is the time to explain. Small children can relate to the example of the butterfly coming out of the cocoon.

7. Be willing to show your emotions. This is not a time to tough it out. Model for your children how a mature person expresses anger, sadness and frustration. Help them see that it is OK to be sad and that big boys and girls do cry sometimes. One caution here: It is not your kid´s job to take care of you and your feelings during this period. It is your job to take care of them. You may need to find your own support somewhere else.

8. Allow your children to express their feelings. Let it be OK if they are scared, sad, or angry. On occasion children get mad or angry at God for what He is making Grandma endure. Do not attempt to talk children out of their feelings. Just be there, hear their feelings, and acknowledge them. Whatever their feelings are, allow them to flow.

9. Honor this important person while he or she is still alive. Send cards, best wishes, flowers and attention before Grandpa passes on. Visit more often, e-mail, call, and help your children stay in touch.

10. Do not refrain from talking about Grandma. Share memories at the dinner table. Have a family night where you bring out the old photos and talk about the good times shared, vacations enjoyed, and holidays celebrated. Remember and honor Grandma´s contributions to the family before her passing. Let her know some of the things you and the children talk about.

11. Be aware some children will have a harder time during this period than others. Some may cry and be sad. Others will turn around and go outside to play. This will be a different experience for each person in your family. Be encouraging and uplifting as they slip into and out of their struggle to understand the concept of death.

The impending death of a grandparent is not the easiest topic to address with our children. Yet, one day we will all face this issue. It is our hope the ideas above will in some way help you and your children deal with this heartfelt and emotional issue.

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