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Talking to grandchildren about your death

(18 Posts)
MEDIA: Sally Peck Thu 04-Jul-19 15:41:32

Hello grandmothers,
I am writing a piece about talking to children about death - of a grandparent or other significant person in their life.

Here's how you can help:

1. Have you had to shepherd your child or grandchild through this? Any anecdotes about what worked/didn't work? I'm looking for picture books for young children but also degrees of realism with teens. Any advice you have.

2. Do you know of anyone currently in this position? Ie a grandparent with a terminal diagnosis who might be willing to talk to me about what they are doing? I know it's a big ask, but we don't get this perspective ever in articles like this - just the odd mention of memory boxes or letters - and I think it would be really helpful to have this voice in the discussion.
Thank you very much for your help.
Please email me at [email protected] if you have any ideas.

M0nica Fri 05-Jul-19 09:49:45

Death is something I just casually mention in conversation with both family (inc grandchildren), why shouldn't it just be part of normal discourse? The idea of sitting down and having formal talks and preparation with children or grandchildren seems most odd.

We have for several generations been relatively late to marriage and having children so DGC for several generations have have been born to grandparents in their 60s so see them as much older people and understand what death is.

When DS was 9 a boy in his class was killed in a road accident.This was a shock because he played with him.The school were told this on our regular library day. When DS got to the library the books he took out included the Usborne book of the body and an American book on what happens to the body and soul (if it exists) after death.

When we got home he insisted we read both together. So first we read the Usborne book on how the body works and covered hatching and matching, including conception menstruation and everything else to do with bodies and living. Then we read this sane and neutral book on the facts of death. First it dealt with how the body is disposed of after death and different cultural preferences and why, then it moved on to discuss the soul/spirit/whatever. It described different religious beliefs about the hereafter together with those who believe there is no hereafter. When we were finished, he said 'What's for supper?' and got on with his life and never mentioned the subject again.

He knew what the questions in his mind were, he chose the books that answered his need then wanted to read them with me to answer any questions he might want to ask. That done, he had all the information he required and life went back to normal. He took the death of his paternal grandparents over the next 6 years in his stride, they were both ill before they died and he was told about their illnesses and prognosis. We never withheld any information from him or his sister. His younger sister was part of the intensive evening of reading but never expressed any concerns about death or dying and accepted it when her grandparents died, even though she was especially close to her grandmother.

BradfordLass72 Sat 06-Jul-19 04:57:56

I explained to my first grandchild, when she was 7+ and began asking questions. She had no experience of death, had lost no one, not even a pet.

Here's how we approached it.

"You see this box your toy came in? That's a bit like our bodies. They are the outside of us, a sort of container.
The most important part is inside, like your toy, only with us it's called 'who you are'.
No one really knows quite how to explain it, but it's what makes us all different and special.
When we die, we stop being us. We don't need our outsides, our box any more, so we get rid of it. Some people believe the 'real us' the inside bit, carries on, some people don't.
So all our lives it's a good thing to remember that it's not the box, the outside, the container that matters most but who we are, the "real us."

It was a long conversation with multiple questions but that's the gist.

stella1949 Sat 06-Jul-19 05:31:44

This is a difficult one for me. As an atheist I have no belief in any life after death, and to me, death represents the end of our existence. Only memories remain for our loved ones . To talk about that with young children is difficult for me. My DH is in his 80s - the children adore him and love spending time with him. One day my GS7 got upset - he'd been told that his father's grandmother had died and that " since she was very old, 86, it was natural that she died and wasn't here any more". He then realised that Grandad was near that age too, and that soon Grandad might not be here any more. GS sobbed " but I've got so many things I have to ask him" which I thought was very touching but very sad too. I couldn't reassure him in any meaningful way - I don't have the religious idea of " we'll meet again" to fall back on, though sometimes I wish I could !

All I could say was that while we're all here and all together, we should make every day count, and talk to each other as much as we can. And to take lots of pictures !

suziewoozie Sat 06-Jul-19 08:46:00

Because of the recent DDay celebrations, we were talking to the dgc ( 5 and 8) about my dh’s father who took part. They asked if he’d died there and we said, no, much later. They asked his age (77) and why he’d died ( heart attack). The younger one remarked that I was nearly that age and I just said yes. I realise this is different because they never knew him but we kept it straightforward and factual. What surprised me was that my dd told me later when they went home that after telling her all about this, the younger one said ‘were you sad when he died?’. I found this very touching, this sort of empathy and thought that clearly he was reflecting on what death meant in an emotional sense.

Sara65 Sat 06-Jul-19 09:02:37

My grandchildren all have a great grandmother living, and one of them has two, four out of six of them were born when my mother in law died, they all went to her funeral, but she’d been in a home with dementia for several years, so the younger ones only had fairly unpleasant memories of visiting the home

I do worry about my husband or I dying, because I know we are very important in the life of one child in particular, I think it would be terrible for her, the older ones would probably be a bit sad for a few days, but accept, that that’s what happens!

TwiceAsNice Sat 06-Jul-19 09:22:24

My grandaughters other grandmother died last year after a short illness. We all answered their questions whilst she was ill and told them as soon as she died and answered any questions then too. It was a help that their friends grandmother died at nearly the same time so they talked about it together. They were very concerned that Daddy was sad.

They did though appear to take it in their stride and they were taken to the house by their aunt (their dads sister) and offered any keepsakes they wanted of Granny and they chose some things and Aunt has kept some of her mothers jewellery for them for when they are older

Cruse website has some excellent booklets you can send for , some are free and a huge booklist to buy from to explain death to children according to age and understanding. Children don’t have the ability to understand death is permanent until at least 5 and go in and out of grief much more than adults. Cruse also do workbooks where children can express their emotions safely. If children are really struggling organisations like Winstons Wish do support days/weekends for families and children

M0nica Sat 06-Jul-19 14:52:13

I cannot see why stella should think the atheist view that the end is the end is difficult to explain. Even though I do profess a a religious faith I find that much the easier option. Once its over, its over. Nice, simple and fits in with everything else.

I find views of heaven that are based on it being a big family reunion where everyone meets everyone else, presumably for umpteen generations quite uncomfortable and as for living here in the present with the thought that family members in heaven are watching me, it is quite disturbing and I felt the same as a child. No give me the Atheist view any day, whether personally or when explaining to a child.

I think children can understand death quite well as even young children. If they do not it is because adults pussy foot round them and try to avoid the issue or cover it up in some euphemism. I did not experience the death of anyone near me until I was 14, but I fully understood what it was when I was much younger, I used to have repetitive dream where my younger sister was vey ill and died. It would wake me up because I was crying so much. the only time in my life I have woken from a dream in tears. I was quite clear what that meant that she was no longer living, I would not see her again and that I would grow up without her. I would only have been 4 or 5 at the time I had these dreams.

In the 21st century death is the equivalent to sex in 19th century, where a woman could go to her wedding night with absolutely no idea of what to expect because no one ever talked about it, or spoke so elliptically she never understood.

paddyann Sat 06-Jul-19 16:01:41

Being brought up in a large extended iris Scots family death was just another part of life .Whenan elderly relative died we were all taken to visit the widow AND the deceased who was laid out in the spare bedroom.I dont remember ever being worried or frightened by it and we jus t accepted death normal.My GC are much the same minus the corpse laid out in the spare room.My 10 year old GD 's other granny owns and runs care homes so the GD is often in them and will tell you about" Mrs x who died last night...she was ready to die though as she was very very tired ...she told me so when I spoke to her on Sunday"Its a very healthy attitude to death and I wish more people ,even some much older had the same attitude

paddyann Sat 06-Jul-19 16:02:01


Googes41 Thu 11-Jul-19 17:41:47

I found Badgers Parting Gifts helpful,when my husband died. We also tied loving messages to balloons to join all the other stars.

stella1949 Thu 11-Jul-19 21:05:28

I cannot see why stella should think the atheist view that the end is the end is difficult to explain

Perhaps I shouldn't have used the words "difficult". I didn't mean that I find death hard to talk about at all - I've dealt with death many times and have never found it hard to talk about. I mean that I find it sad to talk about with my grandchildren because they get upset at the idea of people just not being in the world any more. If I had some religious belief I could fall back on some kind of we'll meet again scenario . As it is, I just tell them to treasure the time we do have .

Urmstongran Thu 11-Jul-19 21:36:32

I am a humanist. Sadly I do not believe in an afterlife. (Wish I did).

I feel we are like leaves on a tree. As we age, we yellow or brown, then drop to the ground.

That’s why whilst I am here, I do try to be as kind, caring and thoughtful as I can be.

Our 6y old grandson said the other day “ ... is that because you are old grandma?”

I said “yes”

He than said “will you die soon?”

I replied “hopefully not soon, but sometime “

My heart melted when he said “I love you too much for you to die grandma but I will try to be brave when you do and just kiss you a lot now while you are here”.

It’s all we have.

Calendargirl Fri 12-Jul-19 07:25:30

When my GD was about 6, we were walking together and for some reason I said to her did she think she would remember me when she was a grown up lady with her own grandchildren. She thought about it and said “I shall remember all the fun times we had”.
As someone who never knew any of my grandparents, made me glad.

Cabbie21 Fri 12-Jul-19 09:16:49

On Doc Martin, we know how abrupt he was with patients. When someone asked if they were going to die, he replied:
Yes. We are all going to die, but you are not going to die just yet.
On this occasion, I agree. We should all be more matter-of-fact about death. It is going to happen to us all, but hopefully, not just yet.

Lazigirl Fri 12-Jul-19 17:03:36

I am a humanist also Urmstongran and am still hanging on to my tree but going brown at the edges - hope there's no sudden gust of wind smile, but you never know! I have thought quite a bit about grandchildren and talking about death. I think it's best as you have done to answer questions honestly as they crop up. Sadly my young GCs were caught up in a terrorist incident a couple of months ago, where unfortunately they were near by others who were killed, and this has been more tricky to deal with. I have seen a little book for kids titled "What's going on inside my head?"and I thought this may help guide discussions if they want to.

goldengirl Sat 13-Jul-19 11:32:32

I could say I'm fortunate that my children and grandchildren have experienced the death of pets and relatives. They've been very sad but accepting and fortunately their parents and we grandparents have answered their questions as best as we can. To answer honestly is the best we can do. I'm not religious and I don't believe there will a meet and greet when I die - it would probably end up in arguments!!! wink

grannyqueenie Sat 13-Jul-19 12:20:27

My approach is very similar to yours Monica, while I’m a practising Christian, not all my children have the same view so I wouldn’t be majoring on an afterlife in talking with the grandchildren.
I never experienced loss of any sort as a child, my grandparents all died before I was born. In fact I attended my first funeral only a few months before my father died, I was 27 and had children of my own. It hit me hard and I was woefully unprepared both for all the emotions that washed over me and the sense of loss I felt.

My own grandchildren when small varied between being very casual about the thought of us dying e.g. “you won’t be at my wedding, you’ll be dead by then” from a 6 year old to feeling sad “I just don’t want to talk about that, granny” from an older granddaughter.

I’m very matter of fact about it and when it naturally comes up talk to them about things they might remember etc. Death after all is life’s only certainty, we will all die one day. There are so many good books, internet resources etc available these days to help children understand death and find a way through their sadness and loss.

When I go to funerals of older people I always feel for the grand children, for many of them it’s their 1st experience of death. But the way we all learn the skills to cope with adversity of any sort is by watching how the adults around us manage it. So if we skirt around the subject then we’re not really doing those children that we love so much any favours.