I know this topic is far away from my norm, but, in my circle of friends we are all heading to that age where our parents are getting a bit older and contemplating life without them is becoming a reality. Devastatingly, my beloved Dad passed away 2 years ago, it was unexpected as he hadn’t been sick for very long and then, after dedicating his life to healing others, nothing could be done for him. We were robbed of a great man, a devoted husband, a wonderful father and a dedicated and adored Poppa. Sadly, recently, a few other friends parents have passed away and as parents it’s hard to know what to do to help your children when you are grieving yourself and trying hard to be strong for them. I was in shock at the time my Dad passed away and had to blindly feel my way through how to handle things with the girls but now with the benefit of some experience, hindsight and chats with friends I thought that writing a post with some general tips & anecdotes may help others if they are faced with this sad situation.
Now this is all caveated with the fact that I am not a psychologist so this is not professional advice. There are some links at the bottom to some more professional articles if you want to read those. Hopefully you won’t be needing this anytime soon!
There is no right or wrong way to feel and everybody handles death and grief differently.
Children don’t have the same coping strategies as adults or the support networks around them, they have you. Unless a child has experienced it themselves they will have no real concept of death, so their friends can’t offer the same support as adults can.
Depending on the age of your children and your circumstances being able to say goodbye to the grandparent could be really helpful (before they have passed away, that is). Explaining that they may look different or may not be able to talk but they can still feel and hear them say I love you is important for all.
Being involved in the funeral in some shape or form may help them understand that this is the final goodbye. Explaining to them beforehand what to expect is important I think. For my Dad, all the grandchildren were 6 and under so still really little but they all did a drawing or card and walked them down the ailse and put it next to a photo of Dad. Miss E did get upset at the service though when people were having a giggle at a story being told about Dad, she couldn’t understand how people could be laughing at such a time.
Young children may expect the grandparent to reappear soon and older children may suddenly fear for your or their own mortality. My youngest was just 4 at the time Dad died and kept asking “If Cheezus came back after 3 days why can’t Poppa”? Good question (that I didn’t have the answer to at the time & still don’t). My then 6 year old was devastated at losing Poppa, was so sad for Granny and then became fearful that I might die too or that she would, that took a while to work through. Another friends 4 year old cried uncontrollably when there were no clouds in the sky one day having been told that Grandpa was up in heaven. When the clouds were gone she thought so had heaven and therefore Grandpa. Understanding that their fears are real and listening to them, even if it’s over and over again is important and trying to give them as much reassurance as possible.
Letting them know it’s ok to cry and that everyone in the family is also sad. They might get scared when they see Mummy & Daddy cry as it doesn’t happen often so explaining what you are feeling helps them overcome this fear and shows them that it’s ok to be sad. Miss E was so brave but so sad and got upset when M would be laughing at something or that life went on at school and nobody knew how sad she was inside. She wanted to scream out “don’t you know we’ve lost someone so very special”, actually so did I and so we talked about how we were both feeling the same thing, while it didn’t change anything it helped her knowing that I was feeling the same.
Lots of people talk about the spirit of the loved one still being all around us, I believe this but it’s a very hard concept to understand for little people. I just said that whenever we think of Poppa he is near us, watching over us, that he adored us and wants us to be happy. Mine wanted physical evidence of this so whenever a butterfly comes past we stop for a moment and think of Poppa that he’s just flying by to check on us. You do need to think these things through though in terms of posibilites of where their minds can go with it. On a recent holiday we walked through some bush where about 1000 blue butterflies must have just hatched – I had to explain that one as Poppa had obviously spread the word about Magnetic Island and lots of other spirits wanted to to go on holiday to check it out too!
Having something special of their grandparents to keep, mine have a T-shirt each of Dad’s that they picked out with Mum and have them tucked under their pillows.
Explain that “grief” is what they are feeling when they are sad and also sometimes when they get a little bit mad. It’s also what Mummy & Daddy are feeling if they get a bit sad or mad too.
In time, perhaps suggest they think about how they think their grandparent would want them to feel, to be happy, to laugh, to play, to learn, to remember the good times …
There are quite a few books available for children on this topic and they also can be very helpful for your child to read or for you to read them together. This post by Children’s Books Daily has a wonderful list of books dedicated to grief and feelings. Sometimes books have the words when you just can’t.
As I said I’m not an expert on this and am not a psychologist so if you do think that either you or your child need some help in dealing with grief please do go and see your GP or talk to an expert.
Here are some links to some more expert advice:
This post is answering the questions about children attending funerals