8 Ways to Prepare Your Young Child for a Grandparent's Death

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People often conceal the reality of death from young children in an effort to protect them from painful and frightening "adult" matters. In earlier times, grandparents and other relatives often passed away at home, cared for by the family, and children understood that death was part of the natural order of things. Today, the dying are often in hospitals and nursing homes, and many children have no concept of what it means to die. But experts agree that not talking about death, or dressing it up in euphemisms or platitudes, can confuse and frighten a young child.

If a grandparent is ill and nearing death, here are steps you can take to help prepare your child for the loss.

Talk openly about death in advance.

It's a good idea to introduce the subject of death to your young child well before a grandparent is ailing. The death of a pet offers an excellent opportunity for such a discussion. Or you can simply show your child a dead flower or insect. Explain that death is the end of life , and that every living thing will die one day. Keep your explanation simple and to the point. Consider this the first of many conversations, as it will take your child a while to absorb the information.

If a grandparent is very ill or has received a terminal diagnosis, gently tell your child that his grandparent is going to die. It's better to inform your child in advance, because at the time of death you may be too grief -stricken yourself to explain. It's fine to show your child that you're sad about the loss, but it may scare him if you disclose the news of his grandparent's passing at a time when you're overcome with grief.

Answer your child's questions, no matter how difficult.

Try to respond to all your child's questions about death without distress or displeasure -- or dishonesty. Many of them are likely to be difficult to answer -- for example, "Will Grandma be able to see me when she's dead?" -- and your response will depend on your personal beliefs. Avoid telling your child fairy tales. If you say that Grandma is sitting on a fluffy white cloud in the sky, looking down on your child and sending kisses, your child may feel comfort in the moment but is likely to be confused about death in the long run. It's fine to simply say that you don't know the answer to certain questions.

Let your child spend lots of time with grandparents, if appropriate.

If your child's grandparent is up to it, arrange for them to see each other regularly. Your child may find this scary at first if you've just told him that his grandparent is going to die, but short visits will help dispel your child's fear, may lift his grandparent's spirits, and will create pleasant memories for years to come.

More Ways to Prepare a Child for the Death of a Grandparent

Put together a legacy project.

Consider creating a legacy project with your parent, and involve your child in the process. Even a very young child can help select photographs for a poster or photo album. An older child may enjoy listening to his grandmother relate her life story for a n oral history project; the child could also draw pictures for the final bound volume. If possible, take some pictures of your child with his grandparent and add them to the oral history. Frame one of the photos and put it in your child's room.

Find children's books on death and dying.

Many excellent books for children deal with the subject of death. Pick a selection up from the library and purchase a few you think your child will like, so they can continue to provide comfort in the months to come.

Encourage your child to draw or paint pictures.

Children often have trouble talking about their feelings and may be able to express themselves more easily through drawing or painting.

More on Helping a Child with a Dying Grandparent

Inform your child's teacher and other adults.

Talk to your child's teacher, to babysitters, and to other significant adults in his life. Tell them that your child's grandparent is dying, and explain how your child is dealing with the experience. This information will help adults know how to interpret his behavior and provide support, as needed.

If you detect problems, take your child to a counselor or a child psychologist.

If your child is having a very strong reaction to his grandparent's death -- if he's acting out, is very withdrawn, or exhibits other signs of distress -- it's a good idea to consult a child psychologist. An expert can help your child work through his fear and loss.

Connie Matthiessen

Constance (Connie) Matthiessen, senior editor, has worked as a healthcare and environmental journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting and has written for WebMD, Consumer Health Interactive, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, BabyCenter. See full bio

about 2 years, said...

Wow troubled mother, it sounds similar to what I am going through. My ex husband' s father passed, whom I always had a good relationship with and was still treated kindly after the divorce...we also have a custody battle in place because my daughter was touched and kissed inappropriately by her new step brother, which prompted me to go to court. In the meantime grandpa dies and my ex husband decides I am not welcome to the services and tells my daughter because it is only for family and mommy no longer is family. He threatened to have me escorted if I showed up. He later states our kids can go in but I will have to wait in the parking lot. I am beyond hurt. This man was so special to me and watched me go through hell and back being married to his screwed up son... and to hold me away from saying goodbye.. .Such a low, scum thing to do. My daughter just can not move past that " mommy is not family" comment he made and now feels more anger at him (as he did not believe her abuse allegations). So now my children will not go but will be honored with pictures, release a balloon, and lighting of a candle. .. I hope one day they do not resent him further his another hurtful, selfish act.

about 2 years, said...

my children lost their grandfather and we are having custody problems as the other parent has physical custody and refuses to let the kids have a few extra days of visitation with the family. are their laws in place in family court that allow children to remain during circumstances like this? it was their maternal grandfather and they were very close prior to the custody arrangements with regular visitation

about 3 years, said...

Our grandchildren are very young and extremely attached to Grampa who was diagnosed with biliary cancer a month ago and now has days or hours left with us. Does anyone have a good idea for books to help explain death to young children?

over 6 years, said...

Confirmation that it is probably best to just be honest.

almost 7 years, said...

Hello Granny2Grand­sons, Thank you very much for sharing this story with the community, it was so touching. Thank you again, and take care -- Emily | Community Manager

almost 7 years, said...

yes thanks

almost 7 years, said...

My 5 yr old Grandson came to visit while I was taking care of my Mom - his "G-Granny". G-Granny lives 850 miles away. They had a wonderful relationship. I was taking care of my Grandson (provided daycare from infancy to age 3) in my home. G-Granny would send stickers and a sticker book (along with a note saying, "remember - stickers go on paper - nothing else!" She would also send my Grandson other things in the mail. My Grandson loved it every day when it was time to get the mail. G-Granny sent something every week, even if it was just a postcard of dogs, cats, or zoo animals! When I called my husband and told him that my Mother was terminal, possibly 3-4 months - along with my daughter and 5 yr old Grandson, they came to visit G-Granny that weekend! At the same time, my son-in-law was on his way back to his home - his Dad's twin bother had just passed. My Mother was extremely concerned about how my Grandson would react to seeing her with a cap on her head or wearing a wig since she had lost her hair along with a lot of weight. I had told my Mother that I think he will be just fine! When my husband, daughter and Grandson came in my Mother's house, he immediately went to her (she was wearing a cap and very pale) to give her a hug! Then he told his G-Granny, "I like your cap! I got you this candy bar but it is a little melted so I'm going to put it in the frig and help you eat it later, OK?" The next day, my Mother had her wig on. She was feeling better that day. When my Grandson saw her - he immediately said, "G-Granny, your hair looks beautiful and so do you"! He didn't act any different than the many years of visiting together! My Mother was so relieved! Even when my Mom was having a rough day and was pale looking, wearing her cap and still in her nightgown and robe - my Grandson would still sit beside her always asking if he could get her something. Then he would start a conversation with his G-Granny. When Mom just had to go take a nap, my Grandson would tell her - "G-Granny, I'll be in there in a few minutes to tuck you in"! He would always wait a few minutes - watching the second hand on the clock for 3 minutes - then he would go in G-Granny's bedroom. He was so sweet - we had all talked to him about how sick G-Granny had been and that she had cancer and would be dying soon. He would just say, "Let's go visit as many times as we can before she dies and make her happy". He understood that death meant he wouldn't see G-Granny again - ever! At 5 yrs old - he was the one that helped the adults! It was just so precious and gave his G-Granny so much love and joy and helped the rest of the adults to see such innocence of a child dealing with the death of a loved one. Now, 6 years later - he still has pictures of him with his G-Granny from his 1st birthday all the way through the 5 years he knew her. He says he still remembers her but not everything. He says he remembers he loved her very much and she was always very "huggy" and sent him things in the mail!! Just being honest with a child over anything such as death, divorce, or anything else dramatic - talk and then listen to them and answer all of their questions - it puts them at ease, lets them understand and makes them feel better knowing what is going on and what was going to happen!!