One afternoon, I came home from school, aged eight, to find my parents standing in the kitchen, both smartly dressed.
‘Grandpa died,’ they announced. Then there was a lot of silence while I munched on my after-school snack.
I must have pieced it together in my own mind later on, taking in the smart clothes they were wearing, that they had been to that closed and secret adult rite of passage called a funeral. It was the first I knew that Grandpa had passed away.
This was the Sixties (it wasn’t always ‘swinging’), I am somewhat impressed that my parents made a joint decision to tell me where they had been. Some children didn’t even get that.
Looking back, I wonder why they didn’t tell me. Was it because they didn’t want me to be alarmed? Did they think I’d make a nuisance of myself at the funeral? Or was it because death was a ‘grown-up thing’? Personally, I am relieved that, over the past 50 years, the taboo of death has lifted.
As a grandparent, you may find yourself having to support your own (grown-up) child or child’s partner, in the event of one of them dying. If it is your own son or daughter who has passed away, you, too, will be bereaved.
In such a situation it is easy for the grandchild’s emotional needs to be overlooked. However, there is a big part you can play. Like my own situation as a child, you may have similar memories. Back then it was considered best that the child not only not be heard but not be seen either.
However, many bereavement experts today say tell the children as much as you possibly can. It can do no good at all brushing this news under the carpet, as children often will and frequently do blame themselves, whether it’s divorce or death, If they are not given the full facts.
- If there is a diagnosis of likely death, tell the children. The detail and description you go into needs to be appropriate for the age they are.
- If the person goes to a hospice, take them to visit.
- Let the child have access to the person, so they can talk to them before they die.
- Give the child the chance to express themselves using creative means, making gifts, writing letters, telephoning the person who is ill.
- If the death is sudden, be honest with the child. If both parents have died, the responsibility falls on you as the grandparent.
- When a person dies, tell the child the person is dead. Telling a child that the person has gone to heaven or ’to be with Grandpa’ suggests to the child that the person has not really gone, that they will come back. As a result, they may be expecting them to return, and this can cause a lot of confusion in the child’s mind.
Encourage the child to go to the funeral
The concept of children attending a funeral can be very hard for some adults to come to terms with. They think the sight of the coffin and adults crying will be too much for the young person to take in.
Others say it is a last and only opportunity for the child to truly understand what has occurred, and that the person has died, left this life and is the person in that coffin, which will be disposed of.
But if a child comes to you later and says, ‘I wish I had gone’, it cannot be rectified after the event, there is only that one funeral.
Even when the child is 12 or 13, some people still choose to go along to the funeral, send the child to school and then act as though nothing has happened, or be very cagey when the child asks about it. This can actually make the child feel worse, that they haven’t a right to know or be involved, which is the one thing they desperately want and need.
So by pushing them away, by protecting them from the reality of death we are not involving them in the finale of their loved one’s life which in turn makes their own grieving process harder for them.
So, there are two schools of thought:
1. Funerals are bad enough when you are an adult, they’ll find out soon enough
2. Total openness and honesty with the child and a ticket to all events related to this death
It does remain your personal choice.
After the death and the funeral
This period of time will be for everybody when the grieving process begins in earnest. A much-loved person who was walking around this life, eating and drinking and talking has gone, really gone from here where we knew them.
Seen through a child’s eyes, this time can be frightening. They may imagine the person can come back. It may take some weeks before it really sinks in for them.
It may be good to start thinking about making something like a memory album, using photographs, tickets and sweet papers, anything that reminds the child of their person. Also writing down some questions such as ‘Did the person have a pet?’ ‘One of my favourite outing with my person was...’ ‘My person’s favourite food, colour, television programme, holiday was…’
These questions can be asked to the child who will be only too glad to have an opportunity to voice feelings about the person who has died, or even written down by you on little bits of paper or card, and the child can choose.
This makes the child know that the subject of the person who has died is not scary or taboo, they can be spoken about openly, the child can laugh about special times they remember.
If it is the child’s parent who has died, then you will be coping with your own feelings of grief regarding your child dying. By interacting with your grandchild, by sharing these activities, it may help you to come to terms with your own memories.
I also recommend that you do things together, such as visiting the grave or involving the child in any new developments regarding the stone at a crematorium or whatever your tributes might be, or the scattering of the ashes.
Making Mummy’s favourite cake, or taking a child fishing, or to the football like they used to with their parent can also be helpful to the child. Again there may be a few tears, but it shows the child that you are not shutting the memory of the parent away.