There's a natural instinct on behalf of parents to want to shield young children from painful and frightening issues that seem beyond the ken of small fry. But while these concepts may seem too difficult to broach for today's parents, earlier generations were much more in tune with these matters. In days past, ailing, elderly relatives often did their dying at home, surrounded and cared for by their children and grandchildren.
Inevitable And Normal
Children then were raised to understand that death is the inevitable and normal progression of the cycle of life, whereas our youth have little concept of the meaning of death. That's probably because life today tends to end behind the doors of a hospital or nursing home, far from the eyes of our tender youth. Despite the delicacy that surrounds the topic of death, experts all agree that avoiding a discussion of the issue or referring to death by euphemisms is confusing and frightening to children.
There are steps you can and should take to help your child prepare for the loss of a grandparent or other ailing relative:
*Start by introducing the subject of death to your child long before the concept becomes a reality in the form of a family death. The death of a pet can be an opportunity for discussion. Or, perhaps your child encounters a dead bird or flower during a walk with you. Use this time to explain that all living things die at some point in time. Use simple terms and keep the conversation short and focused. The concept takes time to assimilate and each discussion builds on what you've already talked about with your child.
Don't Hide Grief
*If a grandparent has received a terminal diagnosis, or is so ill that death is nigh, speak to your child about this in a gentle manner, and tell him that his grandparent is going to die. At the actual time of death, you may be grieving too hard to speak to your child so it's best to begin in advance of the loss. Once the loss occurs, don't hide your grief from your child.
*Don't evade your child's questions about death. These are hard questions to answer, but answer them you must, with consideration, understanding, patience, and honesty. If your child asks questions about the afterlife, and you feel you don't know the answers, it's okay to share that you just don't know all the answers.
Visits Are Good
*If you think your child is strong enough to handle a visit, it may be a good thing to take your child to see the grandparent. Seeing the ailing relative makes the issues tangible in a way that discussion cannot. Give your child a task to perform for his grandparent. Perhaps he can bring his grandparent a drink of cold water. This makes your child feel involved and helpful and teaches him to be kind and thoughtful.
*People are not always the verbal type and children are no exception. If you think your child finds drawing, music, or drama an easier way to express feelings and learn about difficult concepts, use media instead of discussion.
*It's a good idea to speak with people who figure large in your child's life, for instance childcare workers and teachers, about the expectation that a grandparent may die. Frank talk about how you expect your child to cope may be in order to help synchronize an effective support system of caring adults. This discussion can also help explain why your child may act out or seem sad.