Friday, April 17, 2009
By Connie Matthiessen, Caring.com senior editor
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.
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 an 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.
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.