Often the death of a grandparent is the first encounter a child would have with death; children deal with grief and loss differently from adults, and every child also comes to terms with the death of a grandparent differently. Having a way to manage this experience can set the child up for a healthy and resilient approach to dealing with the death of loved ones. Parents play an important role in guiding your child through the death of a grandparent, but other family members (including another grandparent) can also support the child.
Breaking the news of the death of grandparent
It is important for you or a close family member to communicate the news of the grandparent’s death, and to do so in a secure setting like your home. It is best to break the news to your child in a clear and simple manner, for instance, “Grandpa had died, and he would not be coming back.” It is not advisable to say that Grandpa had gone away (as the child may be confused as to when he would be returning home), or that Grandpa had gone for a long sleep (which may make the child fearful of going to bed). Children react differently to the news and may not show grief immediately. Their expressions or processing of grief often takes longer than adults, and may surface again at a much later time. Do not force your child to grieve or cry, or not to cry. It is also important to deal with your own grief, so that you can be in an emotionally available state to support your child.
Tips for helping your child cope with the grandparent’s death
Younger children of preschool and school age usually need more support from their parents, and the following may help:
#1 Be available for your child to ask questions
Do not shut yourself off emotionally from your child, or discourage talking about the death of the grandparent. Be honest and brief when answering your child’s questions, and it is ok not to be able to answer all of them. Your family members and other caregivers should respect your family’s religious belief and do not seek to undermine them. Listen to what the child has to say and be patient if the child repeatedly asks the same questions (and to give the same answers to your child).
#2 Do not confuse the child
As the child may not even understand death, or the cause of death, do not use confusing language to associate death with “sleep” or “gone for a long time”. Be mindful of your language, such that the child will not link death as being a form of punishment, or that someone is at fault or to be blamed for the death. It is therefore very important not to use language that hints at the child being part of the problem of sickness or death, such as “Do not misbehave, do you want him to be so tired/ angry that he would die?”
#3 Funeral or memorial services
It is up to your family to decide if the child should attend the funeral; you can explain beforehand to the child what will happen at the funeral, and see if he wants to attend or to have the alternative of being at a friend’s home when the other family members are at the funeral. Do not fault the child for his decision, nor force the child to behave in a certain way should he decide to attend the funeral. There is also no “right” emotional state to be in – let your child know that neither he nor the other families and friends have to be happy or sad at the funeral service. You can also have a separate service with your child as a family, to remember the grandparent such as writing a letter and keeping it away in a box.
#4 Giving comfort in regular family life
Your child may feel fearful of how life will be like without the grandparent, especially if a lot of time has been spent between them regularly. For instance, he may worry that he has no one to care for him after school, or that he will never get to go to the favorite playground that only grandpa brings him. Reassure your child that your family will adjust to life without grandpa together, and try to maintain the same routines for your child as far as possible.
#5 Continuing to grieve
Some children may find comfort to bring something that reminds him of the grandparent, while others may get clingy, anxious or rebellious. Inform the school and other caregivers of the grandparent’s death, and look out for behavioral changes such as headache or stomachache or poor concentration that persists for weeks.
#6 Staying connected to the extended family
It may also be helpful to continue to meet up regularly with cousins, to play, chat or simply spend time together. Sometimes with the passing of a grandparent, different families may spend less time together but this may further reinforce to the younger children in the families that the death of their grandparent has much deeper ramifications than what the adults represented.
#7 Healing through reading, or the arts
You can take the time to read books or watch cartoons that have a closed one (or even a cartoon character) passing away, and explain that death is a part of the cycle of life. You can also encourage the child to draw or listen to music to help him express his feelings about the grandparent’s death.
If your child shows signs of unusual behaviors such as crying often, poor concentration and academic performance, anxiety, irrational fears, isolation, bedwetting and sleep problems for long periods of times, you can seek counseling help and bereavement support for your child.