How much about death, dying, and grief should we tell our children?

June 4, 2012 · 3 comments

what is the best way to talk to children about grief?

what is the best way to talk to children about grief?

This weekend I went to visit my grandmother in another state, who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer.

My parents and sister and her family also came out, and we knew it would be a weekend to say goodbye.

Before I left, I thought I would be able to hold it together. My grandmother is in her 90s and has lived an amazing life. She’s recorded much of it through memoirs and indexed photographs, so we have a record of it. She’s even kept records of all her genealogy work, and truly left us an amazing legacy to cherish.

I thought I would go into the weekend and mourn for what my father and aunts were losing, but be able to celebrate my own relationship with her.

I wasn’t.

It was incredibly emotional, and I shed a lot of tears.

My children witnessed all of it, and throughout it all I wondered if I was doing the best I could with them.

My boys are young — three and a half and two, so it’s hard for me to know how much they understand. But this is how I decided to handle it:

1. Be honest. I didn’t want my kids to think we were going on a fun-loving vacation. This was a difficult time for my entire family. There were going to be tears. There were going to be quiet talks in different parts of the house. My grandmother was mostly bed-ridden, and didn’t keep herself up like she normally did. I didn’t want my boys to be afraid of this, or worst of all think that something they were doing had anything to do with it. So I told them why we were taking the trip. I told them my grandmother was very sick, and we were all going to see her to tell her how much we loved her and to give her good memories of us. I told them people would be sad because she wasn’t going to get better. They listened, nodded, and moved on. If they had questions, I would have answered them, but they mostly just talked about what would happen, who they would see, and why we were going. That was fine with me.

2. Be real. It’s important to me not to hide my emotions from my children. When I’m angry, I tell them I’m angry and let them know I’m going to take a minute to cool down. When I’m happy, I tell them that too. This weekend I was sad a lot, and cried. While I didn’t make a point to do it in front of my boys, I didn’t hide it from them either. Every time they saw it, they came to me and asked why I was sad and crying. I told them I was sad that Great-Grandma was sick, because I loved her very much. I told them I would be sad for a while, and I might cry sometimes. Again, they seemed to take it in stride. They would wipe my tears, wait for me to stop, and run off and play again.

3. Be available. One thing I had to remember in my grief was the world didn’t stop just because I was sad. My children had their needs, and time with me was one of them. Spending “want nothing” time with them in the middle of traveling, new faces, and new sights was important to both of us. For me, it was a welcome distraction, and time to reconnect. I still wanted to be a steady, dependable outlet for them, and felt that in a time of turmoil that was more important than ever. I was very fortunate my husband stepped up in this area too, and gave lots of special attention to the boys during times I needed to be with my family.

I have no idea if this was the “right” way to approach it, but it seemed to work for us. When we returned home, life returned to normal. I haven’t seen any signs of fright or fear, and I’ve only had a few questions from them about how my grandmother and other family members are doing. I suppose only time will tell.

I’m curious about how others have handled it, especially for different ages, and how it’s worked out.

Photo credit: Tim Green aka atoach on Flickr

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ulrike June 4, 2012

Hi Suchada,
Thank you very much for sharing your very intimate feelings and thoughts on a “difficult ” subject like this. I really think you did a great job with your boys and i would have done the same.
In the nearer or further future they might find themselves in situations where they are reminded of this experience and they might have questions at that time then. For myself I’d like to talk things about when the subject is being brought up by my kids (dependent on their age of course) and i want them to know that everything will be fine again – we’ll go through it together, we are here for each other, and we will always remember the nice things we did with our ancestors. Maybe there is a nice place to go to (if not the graveyard then maybe a nice place in nature / garden/ Mountain,…) where we can see the sun rising in the morning and where we can have little conversations and keep all these special thoughts about the person we miss so much. And kids like to make a place “special” – they do have great ideas. I believe it is a wonderful way to change the sad emotions (which are neccessary and must be ok…) into positive ones so you can go on with your life.
Maybe I could help a little – i wish the best for you and your family and i am sure your boys will be fine because of the way you handle it – being yourself :-)
Take care


2 Suchada @ Mama Eve June 4, 2012

I love these suggestions. We move around a lot (being a 3rd generation military family), but we have a few special books and objects that are meaningful to my grandmother, and I can see myself going through them with my boys if they ask about her. We can even do that with family members who are alive and well, but who live far away. Just the thought of these interactions makes me feel brighter, because I can think of all the happy thoughts and memories I can’t wait to share with them. Thank you!


3 Julia June 23, 2012

This is wonderful – we handled things very similarly with my then 5 year old (now almost 7 year old!) when my 4th month old niece passed away and it was HARD. There are no books on how to relate death that grown ups can’t understand to kids but we figured the best would be to be honest with her – let her make decisions on her own about certain aspects of her grieving (including letting her see, touch, and leave a gift for her cousin), were open to her questions, and let her see and hear us grieve. She is still dealing with it – just like we are but my niece is alive in our hearts and not something big and bad that looms over us.


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