The feelings and emotions that accompany seeing a loved one nearing the end of life can be overwhelming for adults and children alike. As adults, we understand that death is an unavoidable part of life, but talking about death and dying still makes us uncomfortable. The reality of losing a loved one is so painful that it’s difficult to talk about for many.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What to Consider Before You Take Your Child to See Their Dying Grandparent
- Tips for Preparing Your Child to See and Say Goodbye to Their Dying Grandparent
Regardless of how death occurs—whether it was sudden, accidental, prolonged, or expected—it doesn’t make it easier to accept or talk about it. The following are some tips on how to talk to kids about death when facing a grandparent’s death.
What to Consider Before You Take Your Child to See Their Dying Grandparent
Should a child visit a dying grandparent? When deciding how to tell a child about the death of a grandparent, or if they should be allowed to see them, consider that this may be a learning opportunity for them.
For many children, the death of a grandparent is the first time they'll experience the death of someone they love and care about deeply. Perhaps they've already experienced the death of a pet or another animal, so they're somewhat familiar with the concept of death.
In any event, the following are some considerations when taking your child to see their grandparent who's dying.
1. Your comfort level
Most people are uncomfortable with death and dying. Mainly, this is because it’s difficult and painful to talk about. Adults tend to pass along their fears and anxieties to their children. Sometimes they think that they’re protecting their children from exposure to traumatic events.
In the long run, however, it’s possible for the child to be more hurt or traumatized by not saying goodbye to their grandparent one last time. Consider setting aside your discomfort so that your child can see their dying grandparent before it’s too late.
2. They may not understand
A child may not yet comprehend the concept of death and dying. It’s important to walk them through what it means when someone’s reaching the end of their life. Teach them proper etiquette when saying their goodbyes.
Depending on the child’s age and maturity level, you may want to coach them on what is and isn’t appropriate to say to someone who’s dying. You want to set them up for the best visit possible by preparing them in the best way possible.
3. They may have lots of questions
Prepare yourself to answer lots of questions that your child might have. Younger children tend not to have much of a filter, so brace yourself for some of the things you might hear. It’s okay to say to your child that you don’t have all of the answers. Also, you may not always know how to respond to them.
A good rule of thumb is to answer as honestly as possible. Use clear and straightforward language that’s appropriate to their age and maturity level.
4. Unexpected emotional responses
You won't always know how your child will respond to the news that their grandparent is dying. Be ready to help your child process their grief and emotions following the announcement of their grandparents dying. There's no way to predict how they'll take the news.
Consider reading up on different ways in which children may react to death and loss so that you're better able to handle their responses. Don't be surprised if your child withdraws from you. Give them the time and space necessary for them to process their grief on their own.
5. Information overload
When giving a young child the news that their grandparent’s dying, explain it to them in small doses. Too much information too soon may overwhelm them. They may not know what to do with everything that you’re sharing with them.
Sometimes it’s better to break the news to them a little at a time. You may want to save some of the details for later. Consider taking time out throughout the day to discuss the news with them and allowing them to take a step back to process it.
6. They don’t know how to grieve
Most children haven’t been taught to process their grief or what it means to be bereaved. Consider that any atypical reactions to the news of their grandparent dying may be related to their lack of coping skills. A young child may not have learned grieving and coping skills at their age.
Regardless, don't be afraid to cry in front of them. It's okay to cry or otherwise openly grieve for your loved one who's dying. Children learn and take cues from their parents and how they react to their grief.
Tips for Preparing Your Child to See and Say Goodbye to Their Dying Grandparent
Deciding to take your child to visit with and say their final goodbyes to their grandparent is not only heart wrenching but may also be traumatic. Your child may not know what to say to a dying loved one and as a result, may feel anxious and afraid of what to expect. This is your opportunity to talk with your child about death and dying.
You may want to have them rehearse some loving and reassuring things to say to their grandparent so they’re comfortable when the time comes. The following tips are other ways to help your child during this emotionally difficult time.
7. Prepare your child for what they’ll see
Explain to your child what they’ll see once they enter the home or facility where their grandparent is. Warn them that their grandparent may look different to them now that they’re approaching death. If you’re visiting their grandparent in the hospital, make sure they understand that hospitals aren’t only for people who are dying.
You’ll want to reassure them that seeing a doctor in a hospital setting doesn’t always mean that death is near. A child needs to learn not to be afraid of hospitals or the medical community. They don’t always spell bad news.
8. Tell the truth
Regardless of the pain it causes your child to hear that their grandparent is dying, tell your child the truth. Use this time to prepare your child for a life without their grandparent in it. Explain to them what death means and that it’s permanent.
Avoid making generalized comments about death or the use of euphemisms that may confuse the child or give them false hope. Your child may not fully understand what you’re explaining, but they'll look back to try and make sense of their loss in time.
9. Visit the library
Plan an outing to the local library and ask the librarian if they have any children’s books about death. Read these books together to help your child understand what death, dying, and grief are. Having a grandparent who's dying may be the child's first time experiencing the death of a loved one and may not know how to process it.
Books can help them make better sense of what's going on by using stories and illustrations. As you're reading the book with them, ask if they have any questions or thoughts on what death means to them.
10. Listen to your child
Pay attention to your child’s verbal and nonverbal cues. They may not be ready to open up to what they’re feeling and experiencing fully, so it becomes essential to listen and watch what they’re saying in reaction to the news.
Your child’s grief response may be much different than what you anticipated. Listen and look out for hidden clues that they may be having a hard time processing their grief. Talk to them openly and often about what they’re going through.
11. Answer their questions
Your child will likely either have many questions or may not want to talk at all about their grandparent dying. Every child processes their grief in a way that’s unique to them.
If your child has lots of questions, try and answer them honestly. You don’t have to give full explanations all at once. Explain things to them in small doses according to their level of understanding.
If your child becomes withdrawn, honor their need to be alone to process their feelings. Talk to them about what it’s like to grieve and what to expect, then give them the space they need to process the information. Let them know that you are there to answer any questions they may have whenever they’re ready.
12. Remember they’re a child
Children will be children. Regardless of how much teaching and coaching you do, a child may not fully understand that their grandparent is dying. They may misbehave or say hurtful things at the most inappropriate times. Some children may even act disinterested in seeing or spending time with them.
It can be that your child may be too young or immature to understand the permanence of their grandparent’s condition thoroughly. Lovingly encourage them to say goodbye without forcing them into an adult role of having compassion and understanding for the dying.
Visiting a Dying Grandparent
A child who visits a dying grandparent has the chance to say goodbye and gain closure. A deathbed visit also allows the child to learn about life, love, grief, and sorrow. Shielding a child from life's harsh realities may prolong suffering after learning of their grandparents' death.
A final visit gives everyone the chance to say their final goodbyes and express their love and regrets. The end of life can be as loving and memorable as when a newborn comes into the world. Allow your child to experience both cycles of life whenever possible.