Talking to Your child about the death of a grandparent
We recently lost a grandma that was very close with the kids. When a loved one dies it can be difficult to know how to help children cope with the loss, especially because you are going through your own grief. What children can understand about death depends to a large extent on their age, their life experiences and their personality. Researchers have been looking into how children view death since the 1930’s. Talking with younger children is far more difficult than teens because they lack the ability to understand certain concepts and their worldview is vastly different from adults.
Explain about death in language that your child can understand
Don’t hide things, instead be honest and encourage them to ask questions. This may be difficult for you, because you may not know all the answers. Remember that “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid answer and far better than making something up or guessing. It is important to create an atmosphere of trust and openness, and to let your children know there is no right or wrong way to feel. You can also share with them your spiritual beliefs about death if you have any.
Every child is different and so is their ability to understand death. The way you should approach the subject will vary depending on the age of the child and their individual needs.
That being said are some general rules that can help you.
Up to about 5 or 6 years of age, the image of the world that have is very literal. So, you have to explain the death using a very specific language. If your loved one was ill or elderly you can explain that the person’s body no longer works and that doctors can’t fix it.
If someone dies suddenly like in an accident, you can explain what occurred: the body of the person no longer works because of the accident. Explain to them that “death” or “dying” means the body no longer works. My 3 year old son understood this pretty fast using an example of a machine that is broken and can’t be fixed.
Children this young find it difficult to understand that people and living things all end up dying, and it is something final and they will not come back. Don’t be surprised if they occasionally will ask where the deceased is and why they can’t visit them or talk to them again.
Try to stay calm and just explain again that they are dead. Even after a month my 3 year old asks every couple of days to go over to grandma’s house to play with her like he loved to do several times a week.
Try to avoid using euphemisms, like telling children that loved ones “have gone away” or are “sleeping” or even that we “lost” that person. Remember young children think very literally, and these phrases may inadvertently cause them to be afraid to go to sleep or terrified when someone goes away that they will never come back.
Remember too that the literalism of your children means that children’s questions often sound deeper than they really are. For example, when my 3 year old asks where grandma is now, he is probably not asking if there is an afterlife. On the contrary he really wants to know where she is physically located just like any other object in his life. Since he can’t find her anymore he comes to us to see if we know the answer and I tell him she is in the cemetery.
Between 6 and 10 years old, children start to understand death is something final, even if they do not fully understand that this will happen to all living beings eventually. An 8 year old may think, for example, that if she behaves well or makes a wish, her grandmother will not die.
They can understand death better if they are given short, simple, clear, honest explanations about what has happened.
Pre-teens begin to understand that all human beings will die eventually, regardless of their behavior, their desires or whatever they try to do.
In teens the understanding of death evolves again, questions about mortality and vulnerability will naturally arise. For example, if a 16 year old friend dies in a car accident, your teen may feel afraid to drive or even be in a car. The best way to respond to this is to empathize about how frightening and sad that accident was. It is also be a good time to remind your teen what to do to avoid dangers, such as never climbing in a car when the driver is drunk and always wearing a seat belt.
Teens tend to pose questions about the meaning of death to someone close to them. A teenager who asks why someone has to die is probably not looking for literal answers. They are beginning to explore the idea of the meaning of life and death. Teens may also experience some guilt over the death of someone they even had passing acquaintance with and more so if one of their close friends dies. Whatever your teen is feeling, the best thing you can do is encourage them to express and share their pain.
Death is never easy but it is a fact of life and trying to shield your child from it is doing them no favors now, and later in life. If your goal as a parent is like mine, to raise functional adults, they will need to know how to face and cope with hardships. With the many inevitable deaths they will face through their life, yes including your own, it would be a disservice to them to not teach your child now and give them the tools to deal with a situation that they will have to deal with one day.
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