How to Talk to Children About Death

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For some unexplained reason, my husband called all our grandchildren ‘George’ even though they reminded him repeatedly what their names were. These three kiddos loved their grandpa despite the teasing. Or maybe because of it.

Grandpa was the one who let them dump out all the Legos and then he’d sit with them on the living room floor building extravagant structures. He was the one who gave wheelbarrow rides when they helped him rake leaves (I’m not sure how much help toddlers are, but still… there were the wheelbarrow rides).

And then one day, their beloved grandpa was diagnosed with late-stage disease, and although he lived much longer than expected, he was gone from his grandkids’ lives much sooner than they wanted.

How to Talk to Children about Death and Dying

As life rushes past and death comes knocking on our doors to collect our loved ones, how do we explain terminal illness and death to grandchildren? And how do we help them through their loss?

From my experience, here are three recommendations:

Communicate honestly. You-Need-to-Talk-About-Death-with-Those-You-Love-Here's-How-board

Explanation about a serious illness and dying should be given in doses based on the child’s age and ability to understand. An article from Crosswalk encourages parents to explain what’s going on to their younger children in simple words. “Here is an example of what you could say in a very calm way: ‘I have some sad news to tell you. Grandpa died and won’t be here anymore.’”

The article went on to say how literal children can be, which means we need to be careful in choosing our words. “For example, saying someone got sick and passed away could lead to kids becoming worried that when they get sick, they may die too.”

Our oldest grandchild was 4 years old when her grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her parents told her what she needed to know at the time, explaining that even though Grandpa looked well, he was sick and was trying to eat more healthfully. Our granddaughter loved baking cookies with me, and her grandpa loved stealing spoonfuls of cookie dough. The 4-year-old kept a close eye on him and tattled when necessary. (It was often necessary.)

Provide an outlet for saying goodbye. 

According to an article titled “The Toughest Talk You’ll Ever Have,” kids benefit from attending funerals and other celebrations of life. “Some will want to speak about the lost grandparent at a funeral, or pay tribute by singing or playing an instrument, and, if at all possible, those wishes should be accommodated.”

Our daughter Summer was with us in Oregon as her father was dying, while our son-in-law Josh held down the fort with the three grandkids in New Jersey. Josh and Summer asked the kids to each write a letter to their grandpa, which were read to him:

“You played a big role in my life and I have really looked up to you,” penned the oldest, 14 years old at the time. “No matter how annoying your jokes are and how much you like the Broncos … you have always made me smile.”

The 12-year-old boy, a tease like his grandfather, wrote, “We were always teasing each other about who would win the Super Bowl (the Seahawks won, by the way)…. I love you and remember all the fun times I had with you.”

“I hope you feel good soon,” wrote the youngest at age 6. “Jesus will take good care of you, really good care of you. I miss you.”

The letters provided a good outlet for the grands to say goodbye to their grandpa. And the 12-year-old read his full letter at his grandfather’s Celebration of Life service.

Keep memories alive. 

After my husband died, I flew east to spend Christmas with the munchkins. I didn’t want my kids or grandkids to feel uncomfortable talking about their dad and grandfather in front of me. So I brought him up in conversation a few times.

“Grandpa would have thought that was funny.”

“Remember when you were four and you walked in the front door and called Grandpa ‘George’ before he got a chance to call you ‘George’?!”

While tucking in the 6-year-old, I reminded her that her grandpa would have said, “Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t bite the bed bugs!”

Since Then…

A year after my husband passed, Summer and Josh adopted three young brothers from Uganda. The boys never got to meet their grandfather, but they’ve heard plenty of stories about him. They love watching the Grandpa Video, created by my son-in-law for my husband’s Celebration of Life service. And they always have questions: “Wait, how did that bird get on his head?” “Did you climb that mountain?” “How old is Mom in this picture?”

I suspect children are more resilient than we think. The three grandchildren who knew him have done well with their grandfather’s death, even though they’ve expressed how much they miss him. I suspect for the rest of their lives, these three will remember their fun, cookie-dough-stealing, corny-joke-telling grandfather with gladness in their hearts.

When a death or other sudden loss rattles you, it can be hard to understand God’s role in it all. We hope this podcast episode offers some hope: “Why, God?” Finding Hope when Faith Is Battered – 188

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