Research suggests that many parents avoid talking about death because they fear discussing the loss of a grandparent is too upsetting for children.
But avoiding saying grandma or grandpa died to ‘protect’ a child can do more harm than good.
Grief forums: loss of a grandparent
Every day, psychologists, counsellors and teachers share stories on grief forums that illustrate the loss of a grandparent. Yet, common to all the posts are the underlying reasons why it is so important to be open and honest about death with children.
One example is five-year-old Lily’s story.
Well-meaning adults in Lily’s world left her struggling with questions about her grandma’s death. Not until a kindly teacher sat with Lily did anyone realize the extent of her confusion and grief.
Lilly’s story (age 5) Loss of grandma
“My Grandma died last year,” said Lilly.
“That must have been hard for you. Were you close?” asked Lilly’s teacher.
“Yes, Grandma lived with use since I was a baby and looked after me when mom went to work.”
“Did you and your Grandma have fun?”
“Grandma read me lots of stories; we played games,” answered Lilly.
“Have you told others in your family that you miss your grandma?
“I try,” said Lilly sighing, “But every time I talk about Grandma, I make everyone cry.
So I stopped trying.”
“Have you ever told anyone this?”
“Only you. No one will talk to me about Grandma dying.”
Similarly, twelve-year-old Peter’s parents thought they were protecting him by delaying the news of his grandfather’s death.
Little did Peter’s parents realize that a seemingly loving and protective decision would manifest into anger issues.
Peter’s story (age 12): Loss of grandpa
“When I was six years old, the neighbors said they could set their watch by my Grandpa and me.”
“Why was that?” asked the counselor.
“Every day after school, we’d walk to the park— me carrying a catcher’s glove and Grandpa tossing a softball from hand to hand. He was quite the pitcher at school.”
“Sounds like you shared a special bond with your Grandpa.”
“We did. Grandpa knew none of the kids at school wanted me on their softball team because I couldn’t pitch.”
“What did your Grandpa say about that?”
“All I needed was practice.”
“One afternoon, Grandpa didn’t show. Four o’clock came and went. Dad arrived home earlier than normal. At five o’clock, Dad called me inside. Mom was crying. Dad said cutting onions for dinner had made Mom cry. Then he said, ‘Grandpa isn’t coming today.’”
“Why was that?” asked the counselor.
“Dad told me he’d gone on holidays.”
“Did you believe him?”
“I was six, but at the time I can remember thinking Grandpa didn’t mention taking a holiday to me.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“My heart sank. Grandpa and I talked about everything. We had no secrets. I didn’t understand how he could go on a holiday without saying goodbye.”
“Did you ask where your grandpa went on holidays?”
“No, I asked when was he coming back?”
“What answer did your dad give?”
“He told me he wasn’t sure.”
“What happened next?”
“Grandpa didn’t return from holidays. And when he didn’t even send a card for my birthday, I knew something was wrong.”
“What did you do?”
“I got angry with Grandpa because I didn’t understand what I’d said or done to make him forget me like that.”
“How long was it before you found out the truth?”
“It was more than a year later when my parents told me Grandpa died.”
“What was your reaction?”
“My parents thought they were doing the right thing, but they just made it worse.”
“I spent months being angry with Grandpa for no reason. That made me feel so bad. But worse still, I didn’t get to say goodbye, thank you, or tell him how much I love him.”
“When I was told the truth I was nearly eight. So crying over my Grandpa when he actually died when I was six made me feel stupid.”
“Am I right in saying it was around this time you started feeling angry toward your parents?”
How Sesame Street talks about death with children
When Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper in Sesame Street died, the show’s producers felt sure their young audience would notice his absence.
Subsequently, instead of using a replacement actor for Mr. Hooper, the producers—in consultation psychologists—felt the best option was to tell young viewers the truth; Mr. Hooper died.
Difficult discussions about loss of a grandparent
If you find the thought of talking to your children about death difficult, you’re not alone.
Many parents fear they don’t know what to say or they worry about saying the wrong thing.
The good news is honesty is the best policy.
Books to help children deal with death
While saying the words grandma or grandpa died is honest, children also need help identifying and processing grief as they experience it in context to their family.
Two new books, Goodbye Grandma and Goodbye Grandpa, do precisely that.
Using a Sesame Street-like approach, both books help parents to:
- give gentle, age-appropriate explanations of how grandma or grandpa died,
- explain what happens next (i.e. funeral service, cremation or burial),
- talk about religious or cultural beliefs concerning death and the afterlife,
- discuss grief and how it affects everyone – even mommies and daddies, and
- encourage healthy family grief recovery activities.
Young children will rarely need all the how, when and why details of grandma or grandpa’s death.
In fact, it is best to give the honest, simple answers first. After which, if there isn’t enough detail, you will know because children will ask more questions.
Help all your family make a healthy grief recovery by remaining patient, open, and honest when discussing the death of a much-loved grandmother or grandfather.
Further reading, listening or watching
Sesame Street Workshop’s child development experts have 50 years of experience with giving answers. In this podcast, they handle three sensitive subjects: magic, race, and death.
Tick all the good parenting and healthy grief recovery boxes. Make a difficult discussion about grandma’s death, her funeral, grief and what happens next easier. (Suits ages 4-12).
Tick all the good parenting and healthy grief recovery boxes. Make a difficult discussion about grandpa’s death, her funeral, grief and what happens next easier. (Suits ages 4-12).
Helping children deal with grief – Child Mind Institute