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When Grandma Dies

Jul 25, 2008
Explaining death involves two issues. What is it, literally, and what happens to the person when she dies. The former question is best answered in a simple and honest manner - grandma's heart had grown too weak to enable her to breathe, to see, think, or walk. With young children (below 7 or 8), no answer is going to feel very complete but understand that young children don't need or want much information. Just a simple sentence to explain what happened. Avoid euphemistic explanations equating death with sleep (not only incorrect but likely to increase the child's fear of sleep or darkness, which is a common, brief reaction to death anyway) or saying that God decided it was time for her to go to heaven. The latter makes God sound mean and capricious and increases the child's sense of vulnerability.

The question of life after death is obviously a personal one. You should state what you believe (not what you think the child should hear). It is absolutely okay to tell a child of any age that people have different opinions about that question and briefly explain options ranging from heaven to reincarnation to remaining on in our memories. The typical response is that the child will choose the explanation that she is most comfortable with at that moment. Doing that can be helpful at a time when a child is experiencing a loss of control over what has happened in her life.

Remember that throughout all of this it is important for parents to show their own emotions. People cry when they are sad. The death of someone close to you is sad, regardless of the quality of that relationship over the years. It is healthy for children to learn that you can be very sad and then be okay. Too many children grow up equating crying as a sign of weakness and a sense of "losing it." To help both the parent and the child, reading a book together about death is a very positive, shared experience. Goodbye, Max, by Holly Keller and The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst are two of the better choices but a children's librarian can offer a number of options.

Children of most any age can attend a funeral if you take the time to explain what happens at the service and give them the choice about going. Sometimes it is good to have a close relative sitting next to the child to answer questions during the service and provide support. This is especially helpful if you anticipate that you are going to have a very difficult time coping with the funeral yourself. Again, don't force the child to do something they are not ready to handle - and they will let you know.

Attending the burial is often more problematic. The sense of putting grandma into the ground is sometimes very unsettling for younger (under 10 or 11) children. Once again, I stress taking the time to describe to the child what actually happens and truly giving them a choice. Often I find a compromise works very well, i.e., having a close relative or favorite sitter sit with the child at some comfortable distance from the burial site, allowing the child a sense of being there but enabling the child to focus elsewhere as necessary.

In situations where the child has not attended either the funeral and/or the burial, arranging a private ceremony at a later date can be very helpful in allowing the child (and the parents) to experience some sense of closure on the relationship and a chance to process his feelings. At this time the child may create a picture, letter, or some object to be placed at the grave. Actually, this is often a good thing to do even if the child has attended because it gives you a chance to focus on your child's needs at that time, something you will only be able to do to a limited degree during the funeral.

It is most important to recognize that just as your own grieving will go on forever and there will be moments when it resurfaces with surprising intensity, even years later, so to for your children. In fact, because of their constantly changing understanding of death, the issue will need to be re-visited periodically and discussed at a different level of meaning to the child. The key is for you to let them know that you are always available to help them work on these very powerful and often scary emotions.
About the Author
Dr. Heller is a clinical psychologist, now retired, who specialized in providing services to children, families, and couples since 1968. He has written over 150 columns about parenting and marriage which are available on his website, http://www.drheller.com.
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