If someone you love is diagnosed with a terminal illness, it can place an enormous amount of stress on everyone in your family. Children are especially vulnerable during these times as they may not have had any previous exposure to death. They may have questions you aren’t sure how to answer or feelings they don’t know how to express. Knowing how to explain the death of a grandparent or even what to say to a child when a grandparent dies is tough.
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While it can be hard, directly confronting death with your child can provide them with the best opportunity for them to express their emotions and learn methods of coping with loss. Doing so can provide you and your child with a chance to grow together and for them to say goodbye to a loved one without regrets.
How to Explain the Death of a Grandparent to a 5 Year Old
Children are more than capable of understanding and reflecting upon the death of a loved one so long as an adult can answer their questions and provide them with a healthy environment in which to express their emotions.
Be Honest & Help to Demystify Death for Them
It might be tempting to shield your child from the hard truths of your loved one’s condition, but this can do more harm than good. Don’t say their grandparent is going to sleep or leaving. Your child could begin to fill in the blanks with their imagination, causing them greater distress than they would experience if you were honest with them about the state of their grandparent’s health. For example, feelings of abandonment when they realize their grandparent is not coming back or waking up when they thought they would.
Your child will have to learn about death eventually, and teaching them about it in the context of a loved one’s illness can make it easier for them to accept it. They will also be in a better place to fully share their emotions if they are aware that the time they have with their grandparent is limited.
Express Your Own Grief in Front of Them
One of the best things you can do to help your child process understand death is to express your own emotions in front of them. Doing so signals to them that it is acceptable for them to share their feelings with you and that the emotions they are experiencing are perfectly normal. Talking about your shared loved one, as well as laughing and crying together, can help both you and your child come to terms with what is happening and can help your child become more resilient in the face of loss later in life. However, you shouldn’t overburden them with your own emotions as this can cause undue distress for your child and make them reluctant to share their own feelings with you. Tell your child that you will get better and that you are still here for their needs.
Encourage Them to Communicate Their Feelings
If your child is old enough to understand death, then they will most likely have a complex set of emotions of their own to express during this time. Encourage your child to communicate their feelings with you so they can better grieve, and ultimately heal, from their loss. If they repress their emotions, they could have a hard time recovering from them. If your child is made to feel shame or embarrassment for expressing themselves, they could experience difficulty coping with future losses and may also exhibit self-destructive behaviors later in life.
Listen to Your Child
Encouraging your child to grieve can be healthy for them and can help them develop skills which will help them later in life. However, your child may not want to share their feelings, even if you provide an open environment in which to do so. Some may not feel much grief to begin with. While some encouragement is acceptable, you shouldn’t make your child feel as if they are forced to grieve or share their emotions. Answer questions as they arise, and listen to them if the grief becomes too much.
Take a Break From Grieving
While it’s important to get your child to feel comfortable sharing their feelings about their loved one, you also don’t want to force them to do so. Some children will grieve more than others, and all will do so in their own way. You also do not want to burn them out by placing an inordinate focus on grieving. Your child still has a life to live and shouldn’t feel hindered from doing so. Taking a break from grieving to enjoy life can also spare your child from unnecessary trauma, as they aren’t constantly forced to confront death.
It is natural to grieve for a loved one as they approach the end of their life, but when handled properly, it can also provide a learning experience for the young. Teaching your child about death can help your whole family make the most of the time you have left with your loved one.