In every child’s life, there comes a time when a grandparent or relative will become ill and die. While these events are difficult and sad for children, it is very damaging to hide the reality of these events from kids. Part of this is due to the fact that, several generations ago, dying was often managed within the home. Children were present to witness the illness and death of their relatives and loved ones and, as such, they were able to regard sickness and death as a natural cycle.
Nowadays, however, elderly people generally become sick and die in nursing homes and assisted living facilities and, because children witness much less of the process, they often feel an acute sense of loss or betrayal when a loved one dies. While losing a relative is never easy, not talking to children about sickness and death in advance can confuse and frighten children, coloring their perception of death for life.
Here are some tips for how to help children cope with an impending death in the family.
Be Open About Death
While it’s never easy to confront the reality of a relative’s dementia or illness, it is important to be up-front with children from the beginning. This means that the subject of sickness and death should not be avoided or dressed up in euphemisms, but should be confronted directly. One helpful way to do this is to talk about death where it is present in everyday life. Examples of this include the way that the garden dies in the fall or a dead insect in the house.
You can explain to the child that death means that life has ended and that everything dies, eventually. Keep in mind that death is a complex subject and that it will take many such talks for the child to fully absorb the concept. Keep at it, however, and eventually the child will come to regard the process as normal and will be much less fearful about it.
If a relative or grandparent receives a serious diagnosis and it is clear that the person is going to die, tell the child in advance. This does two things: first, it allows the child time to process the impending death and ask questions. Second, it prevents you from revealing the diagnosis at a time when you are grief-stricken and may scare the child. Once you’ve made it clear to the child that the loved one will die, it is important to schedule some time to visit the ill person and to allow the child special time with his or her loved one. This will help the child accept the process and will create memories that both parties will cherish.
Answer Even the Most Difficult Questions
Children are inquisitive and when they learn that a loved one is sick or dying, they will have questions. It is important to answer these questions without becoming distressed or annoyed and it is especially important to answer them honestly. Some of these questions, like “Where will Grandpa go when he dies?”, will be difficult to answer and will depend on your family’s personal belief system.
No matter how you choose to answer, however, it is important to avoid being dishonest with the child or telling the child some dressed-up version of the truth (that Grandpa is going on a long vacation, for example). While this may help comfort the child in the immediate short-term, it will most likely lead to substantial confusion about death in the long-run. If you don’t know the answer to certain questions or you are uncomfortable answering the child’s questions, you can set the child up with a grief counselor who works specifically with kids, read children’s books on death and dying, or ask a doctor to talk to your child about the reality of the loved one’s condition.
Help the Child Honor the Loved One
If it is clear that a grandparent or relative is going to die soon, one great way to help a child cope is to create a “legacy project.” These projects can be photo albums or poster boards that feature photos of the loved one. Encourage the child to draw pictures and add his or her own special memories to the board. If it is appropriate, the ill individual can help create their own legacy project, telling stories and rehashing memories throughout the experience. If possible, take some pictures of this time and frame one for the child’s room – it will be a special memory for the child for years to come.
Encourage the Child to Express Him or Herself However Possible
Young children don’t have extensive vocabularies and they often have trouble processing and expressing grief. This means they may have an easier time processing their feelings through pictures or in writing. Be patient with the child and be careful not to put up barriers that will forbid certain forms of expression. If the child is acting out in aggression or bouts of deep sadness, inform the child’s teacher and other adults in his or her life in order to provide the child with the support he or she needs.
In extreme cases, it may be wise to hire a grief counselor to help the child cope with the process, especially if the child and the ill individual were very close. While children grieve, they may act differently or become sad, angry, or quiet. It is important during these times to be gentle with the child, to accept his or her process, and to allow the child to grieve in the way he or she is able to at that moment.
Often, ill people exhibit physical symptoms that will be obvious to children. For example, if a loved one has cancer and has lost a great deal of weight or is undergoing chemotherapy and has lost all of his or her hair, it is important to explain these symptoms to children so they don’t become startled by the sudden change in their loved one.
If the loved one has obvious symptoms, keep visits short and ensure that children are not allowed to witness all aspects of the illness. While it is fine to spend some time with grandmother and ask questions about where her hair is gone, the child may need to leave the room if grandmother becomes ill and is vomiting or is undergoing extreme pain. These things are a reality of chronic illness but may be too upsetting for children to bear.
Talk About What Happens After Death
If your child asks where their loved one will be after they die, it is fine to explain some of the post-death procedures. For example, you can tell the child that their grandparent will be buried in the local cemetery and that you can go visit the grave, bringing flowers and cookies. If the ill person is married, telling the child that the surviving spouse will need lots of love and care after the ill person dies may help the child direct his or her energy.
You can also tell the child about the basic structure of a funeral and allow him or her to have some family pictures in his or her room. These things, while they may seem simple, can help the child cope and feel less fear about the process of illness and death.
While illness and death are a difficult part of life, they are a reality. All children will eventually experience a death in the family. Fortunately, these simple tips can help children cope with the process and avoid the shock and sense of loss that comes with having a loved one “disappear” suddenly. While children may have a difficult time coping with death, being honest and upfront about the process can help children develop a deeper understanding of death and accept it as a reality of life.