It’s natural for parents to want to spare their children from pain. We spend a lifetime trying to protect them from every accident conceivable, and our hearts ache as we watch them go through events like their first break-up. But there are things we can’t protect them from – such as the illness and impending death of a grandparent. So when’s the right time to tell school-aged children about the impending loss of a loved one?
Protecting children from the truth isn’t protecting them at all
It’s tempting to let your children believe that nothing’s wrong, so that they only have to deal with the death of a grandparent when it finally happens. However, we all know that we do our children no favor if we raise them in an overprotective bubble. If we do, they’ll be without the protective gear to navigate the rough and tough terrain of life’s journey. A grandfather’s impending death is now part of your children’s journey. There is no detour. They’ll look to you and your spouse for a compass to guide them through dealing with death.
Most experts in childhood bereavement will tell you that children know more than you think. They pick up on your body language, the teary eyes of family members, the whispered conversations, and the look in Grandpa’s and Grandma’s eyes. At this age, your children need to know what’s going on, so that none of them will be plagued with “if only I had known, I would have…” for the rest of their lives.
The Caring Place, a center for grieving children, recommends two books on this subject: How to Help Children through a Serious Illness, by Kathleen McCue, and How Do We Tell the Children? by Dr. Dan Schaeffer.
Addressing children’s fears of illness
How to Help Children through a Serious Illness tells parents that nearly all children have three universal concerns:
- Young children may believe that they had something to do with causing the loss of a loved one. For example, they may have secretly wished them “dead” when they were being disciplined. As a result, she cautions that children need to be told that nothing they did or didn’t do could have caused what’s happening to Grandpa to make him die.
- Young children need to know that whatever their loved one has, it is not contagious. They need to know they won’t catch it, and that their parents won’t catch it.
- Young children who face the death of a parent also need to know who will take their parent’s place. In other words who will do the “Daddy” or “Mommy” things? In this instance, your kids need to know how your family will function in the face of their grandfather’s impending death: how you may be spending more time away from home, how Grandma may come to live with you for awhile, how you’ll be spending time at a hospital or that when they visit with Grandpa they’ll be meeting people from hospice. McCue also recommends giving your children something to do – as she puts it, “they’re entitled to help.”
The DOs and DON’Ts
Dr. Dan Schaeffer offers a checklist of actions to consider in his book How Do We Tell the Children? (Those with younger children will find recommendations for different stages of childhood in his book.)
- It’s better to “control the message” by explaining to your children what is going on; otherwise, they will be confused and anxious, and imagine many things that aren’t true. Never lie to a child or make something up so that they’ll feel better.
- Do not be afraid of using the “d” word (meaning death or dying). Terms like “passed away,” “gone on,” or “left us,” cause children great anxiety and confusion, resulting in thoughts such as, “Is Grandpa on a trip?” “Is he coming back one day?”
- Explain death in a simple, straightforward manner, for example: “Dead means that a person’s body stops working; he won’t be able to talk, walk, move, see, or hear because none of the parts work. He won’t feel any pain.”
- Allow the child to ask questions; don’t be surprised if they ask a lot of mechanical questions like “Why is he cold? Where will they put the body? Can he hear me?”
- Never describe a dead person as “sleeping.” Aside from being inaccurate, it will frequently cause anxiety around sleep in children.
- Let them know that it is okay to cry and feel sad – an especially important message for boys.
You cannot protect your children from the cycle of life. But you can soften the harsh reality of dealing with death with love, shared tears and the reassurance that their family circle will help them through this sadness, distressing as it will be.
The bottom line
- As much as parents want to protect their children from pain, they cannot do so when it relates to the loss of a loved one.
- It is better to tell the children that a grandparent is dying rather than let them believe everything is okay – rationalizing that they will hurt enough when the death itself takes place. Most children can tell when something isn’t right.
- Explain the illness and death to children in honest terms. It’s best that they know the full truth because it prevents problems later.
- When telling children about the impending death of a grandparent, prepare them with information about what is going to happen in the future, including hospital visits, the funeral and a potential change in living circumstances.
- Allow your children to be sad with you. Death is sad. And being able to feel and express sadness is an important aspect of growing into an emotionally balanced adult.