The Executive Editor of the Open to Hope Foundation recently spoke with Barb Petsel, author and therapist at Healing Transitions Counseling, during the 2015 Association for Death Education and Counseling conference. As the author of Remembering Grandma’s Hugs, Petsel delved deep into the how’s of talking to children when their grandparents die. “I wrote (this book) because many years ago my father died. He was visiting my brother and his children, and died suddenly of a heart attack in front of them.” However, the family was at a loss. They hadn’t discussed how to talk to their children about death or how to cherish the memories of a passed love one.
Previously, Petsel had been a director of an organization helping children and teens grieve. This experience with her father, brother, nieces and nephews made her realize there needs to be more opportunities to open up communication when families are grieving. “So often as parents, we want to protect our kids and not have them bereaved or suffer,” she says, but that’s not realistic nor the best approach. Sharing memories in a “delightful” way is a positive way to heal and grieve.
Every family wants to cherish memories of their passed loved ones, but many don’t know how to do it. In her book, Petsel talks about the importance of language when talking to younger children. The idea of “losing” is particularly scary, and Petsel says language needs to be honest and developmentally appropriate no matter what the cause of death.
Children often have unique reactions and worries about funerals and death. For instance, Petsel recalls one child hearing “polar bears” instead of “pallbearers,” which of course led to a lot of confusion. “If you’re old enough to love, you’re old enough to grieve,” says Petsel, including even babies and newborns. However, it’s up to parents and other adults to teach children how to talk and grieve in a positive manner.