I think it’s safe to say death isn’t easy to deal with at any age.
Sometimes it’s more painful when we have to explain it to a grandchild or child.
How do you comfort a younger person when someone beloved dies? How do you ensure the memory of your parent is honoured in day-to-day life?
How a younger person copes with the death of an aging loved one depends on many factors, including age, the role a grandparent plays in the young person’s life, who else is impacted by the death, and whether an illness was lengthy or if it was an unanticipated death.
Younger people express grief in different ways. Some will be sad or angry. Others may be fearful of another grandparent or parent dying. With the wisdom gained that people die, some children develop feelings of insecurity. Others want to understand what happens to the person they loved, what it feels like to be dead and where one goes after death.
To help a younger person cope with a loss requires a consistent and loving message and observation of their reactions.
Name it: Say, “Nana died” or “The bird is dead.” Don’t confuse young children by suggesting that an aging loved one is at “rest” or “sleep.” Children may become fearful of going to sleep or worried that family members won’t wake up from a rest or nap. Remember — yogurt expires, not people! Avoid such euphemisms with younger children.
Keep it simple and simpler: Answer a younger person’s questions, but keep answers brief and simple. Find out what he or she knows or thinks they know about death, and then offer answers and details based on this knowledge. Do not give a younger person more information than is requested.
Talk about it: Listening and validating feelings provide younger people with reassurance that death is not a form of punishment but is a part of life. Help your child understand that their aging loved one is not going to “come back.”
Use it as an opportunity to learn about the cycle of life — you can use a leaf, bug, or a pet as examples. Allow time to talk about your spiritual and religious beliefs. Check out your local library and online for books on explaining death to younger people.
Celebrate and mourn: Depending on their age, encourage children and grandchildren to participate in family rituals, including going to the funeral, memorial and/or cemetery, giving a eulogy or reading a special poem/reading.
Give the younger person adequate preparation on what to expect at a funeral or memorial. Remind them that everyone grieves in different ways; some cry, some are withdrawn and angry, and others may be talking and laughing about their aging loved one.
Go with the flow: Understand the ebb and flow of grief. Younger children often find comfort in the days following a death by carrying around a picture of their grandparent or a special toy. Teachers and/or caregivers should be told about the death. Other younger people become anxious, clingy, angry or act out in rebellion or may retreat altogether. If behavioural changes do not subside after a few weeks, the younger person may benefit from speaking with a counsellor.
Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Solutions for Seniors Eldercare Planning. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Friday.