Helping Children with the Loss of a Grandparent

By Wendy Johnstone
November 12, 2009

1lI think it’s safe to say, “Death isn’t easy to deal with at any age”. So how do you explain it to your three-year-old? How do you comfort your eight-year-old when their grandparent dies? How comfortable are you with the whole concept of death? What are you beliefs regarding after-life, if any? How do you ensure the memory of your parent is honoured in day-to-day life?

Reflecting back through the death of my grandparents, there isn’t one defining moment when the light bulb went “on” and I said, “Okay, I get this whole death thing. Check it off the list and let’s move on”. My personal beliefs around death and dying are shaped by my personal compilation of experiences with the loss of significant people in my life.

Some of us might share common threads and traditions about the after-life, the process of dying and grief. But how we each deal with death and dying is uniquely ours, and in turn, will be unique to our children.

My four grandparents died at very distinct stages in my life – child, teenager, young adult and a married woman entering motherhood.

Seven years old: My Bobba J died suddenly of a heart attack on a busy street. We saw the sirens go by only to hear the news a mere two hours later. My memories are patchy – staying up late for Bobba’s wake, running around the funeral parlour, eating little finger sandwiches and drinking tea from fancy cups, being upset that Bobba was “dead” and uncertain about what that meant exactly, watching my brother poke his eyes to make himself cry and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of people at Bobba’s funeral service.

Thirteen years old: Boppa Cumming died from prostate cancer during the summer. I was at camp on an Island in Algonquin Park and I remember seeing my whole family arrive by barge. It was my eldest brother who broke the news. The loss seemed insurmountable at 13 years.

There was the discomfort in having to tell all my friends. I recollect a rollercoaster of emotions as my Mom’s moods fluctuated. We were laughing one minute, crying the next followed by anger and then by laughter. I remember standing up at the service and speaking about my Boppa C and feeling my knees almost give way and the trickle of tears down my face. I can still feel the dirt in my hand before throwing it on Boppa’s grave site. I can still hear my Nana’s outwardly cries of “Charlie” during his funeral service. Mostly, I remember the intensity of the dying and death process and my erratic and uncontrollable reactions to my grandfather’s loss.

Twenty-six years old: my beloved Nana J and life mentor succumbs to colon cancer. Only weeks prior, she and I said our “good-byes” and made promises to each other. Her slow and progressive death was a special gift we shared. We had the chance to say everything we wanted to say to each other. Her death was expected. I thought the grief would be minimal.

I remember clutching her coffin with all my might, sobbing uncontrollably, not wanting to let her go. I vaguely remember my brother stepping in and helping me up and holding me for support. My fears at 26 years old were ego-centric – I was losing my iconic figure, my best friend and mentor. How could my life go on without her? Ten years later, on my most recent visit to Toronto, my Mom gave me my Dad’s copy of Nana J’s eulogy. As I read the beautifully crafted tribute, the tears well up in my eyes. The grief sneaks up on me and my Nana’s loss remains as fresh as it did a decade ago.

Thirty-four years old: Nana Cumming died a very slow death from Alzheimer’s disease when I was 36 weeks pregnant. She died two days after my father died. Her celebration of life was a month later and I was unable to travel back to Ontario. In many ways, I said “good-bye” a long time ago. I chose to focus my energy on the Nana I remembered – the vibrant and elegant woman who took such pride in herself and family.

I celebrate her by cherishing memories of her mouth-watering trifles, her love of quotations, her beautiful penmanship and her fondness for us, her grandchildren. Her death was a mix of emotions – sadness, relief, the finality of life. She was my last grandparent to die. Her death coincided with the cycle of life as our daughter was born just a few weeks later. I was comforted knowing how happy she would be of the arrival of another precious child on earth.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

How a child copes with the death of a grandparent depends on many factors including:

• The age of the child

• Type and length of relationship

• The role a grandparent plays in the child’s life

• Who else is impacted by the death and their coping strategies

• A lengthy illness and unanticipated death.

Children will express grief in different ways. Some will be sad or angry. Others may be fearful of another grandparent or parent dying. With the wisdom gained that people die, some children develop feelings of insecurity. Others want to understand what happens to the person who they loved, what it feels like to be dead and where one goes after death.

Death and dying are complex concepts that are understood by children at progressive intervals. Open and honest discussions are important however, the language needs to be appropriate for your child’s age.

Children under two see death as a form of separation or abandonment and are stressed by the disruption of being cared for. They have no cognitive understanding of death. From age two to six, children often believe that death is a temporary state, reversible.

Depending on the type of death, some children feel responsible for the loss, or see the death as a form of punishment. Other children often enter into magical thinking – “wishing” for their grandparent to come back or negotiating for their return.

By age six, children begin to understand the death is final and around 11 years old, children/teenagers understand that death is universal and that each day, we are one day closer to our own death.

To help a child cope with a loss requires a consistent and loving message and observing your child’s reactions. The following list provides suggestions for helping a child cope with death.

Use concrete terms when explaining death. Say that “Nana died”, the “bird is dead.” Don’t confuse young children by suggesting that a grandparent is at “rest” or “sleep”. Children may become fearful of going to sleep or worried that you as a parent won’t wake up from a rest or nap.

Avoid words such as “passed on”, “departed”, “expired” (yoghurt does this, not people!) as children may not understand such euphemisms. Be careful about associating death with sickness. As children think in concrete terms, your child may become very fearful about his or her own sicknesses.

• K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple and Simple) Answer a child’s questions, but keep your answers brief and simple. Find out what your child knows or thinks they know about death and then offer answers and details based on this knowledge. Do not give the child more information than is requested.

Be prepared to repeat your message especially to children under five. Be patient and consistent. They are simply trying to understand and make sense of this confusing information and the loss in their world.

Afford choices in how to remember the grandparent who has died. Depending on your child’s age, enable them to participate in your family rituals including going to the funeral, memorial and/or cemetery, picking flowers, being a pallbearer, giving a eulogy or reading a special poem/reading.

Give your child adequate preparation on what to expect at a funeral. Give them a choice to see their grandparent and prepare your child for an open casket (i.e., tell the child their grandparent is not going to look the same because their body isn’t working anymore). Children often find comfort in placing a picture or letter in the casket. Alert the chid that everyone grieves in different ways; some cry, some are withdrawn and angry and other may be talking and laughing about their grandparent.

Allow the child to grieve, but understand the ebbs and flow of grief. Some children find comfort in the days following a death by carrying around a picture of their grandparent or a special toy. The child’s teachers or caregivers should be told about the death. Some children become anxious, clingy and angry or act out in rebellion. Others complain of physical symptoms or have difficulty concentrating on tasks such as school work. If behavioural changes do not subside after a few weeks, your child may benefit from speaking with a counsellor.

Honor and provide your child with a variety of ways to express loss, grief and sadness such as verbal, written, creative, musical and physical. Encouraging your child to draw, read, write letters or poetry, sing, tell stories, building a collage are all creative and helpful ways for a child to express grief. Children often like to draw a picture for their deceased grandparent or to make a scrapbook of memories.

Let your child be upset and talk about their fears. Listen, validate their feelings and provide reassurance including that death is not a form of punishment but is a part of life. Help your child understand that their grandparent is not going to “come back.” Take the opportunity to learn about the cycle of life – you can use a leaf, bug, or a pet as examples. Allow time to talk about your spiritual and religious beliefs. Check out your local library for books on explaining death to children including the suggested books listed at the end of this article.

Try and keep regular routines. Children can grieve a change in behaviour and schedule. Ensure you allow your child to release anxiety and tension by going outside to play, swimming or taking a hike in the woods.

Other Tips for Parents

(Source: Dyer K. 2004. Helping Children Cope with Death)

• Stay calm and keep your emotions in check when talking with the child. Children can have difficulties coping with the death if they see their parents are extremely distraught.

• If you are so upset that you don’t want to talk, tell the child that “Mommy (or Daddy) doesn’t feel like talking now.”

• Be especially loving and supportive. Remember the importance of touch physical assurance.

• Realize that children can experience an Anniversary Response. Expect that the grief may recur as the child progresses from childhood to adolescence and even into adulthood. Strong reminders, such as the anniversary of a death, a birthday, or a celebration without the loved one may reawaken grief.

Books on Dealing and Explaining Death

When Your Grandparent Dies: A Child’s Guide to Good Grief (Paperback) by Victoria Ryan.

I Miss You: A First Look at Death (Paperback) by Pat Thomas (Author), Leslie Harker (Illustrator).

Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss (Paperback) by Michaelene Mundy (Author).

Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Children (Paperback) by Doris Stickney (Author).
**If anyone local would like to borrow the above before purchasing, please call Wendy at 250-650-2359 and I’ll gladly lend out your book of choice.

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