Talking With Grandchildren About Loss

“Grandma, why are you crying?”

This was the question, as a six-year-old, that I remember asking my beloved Grandma Jensen as she cleaned out her attic.  Among the treasures we found sorting through the bows and arrows, large magnets, and an ancient violin were a number of pairs of white cotton gloves.  My grandmother, being raised in lean times, had learned to deal with lack and thus learned to make soap, bottle and can fruit, and sew her own clothes.

“Grandma,” I asked, “what are those white gloves for?” That was when grandma teared up.  “Honey,” she said, “they were worn by the men who carried your grandfather’s coffin.”

I looked at her and asked, “But why are you crying?” She said, “Because it makes me sad to think about it.”

At that point, I had a number of questions I would have liked to ask about Grandpa Jensen, who died the year before I was born, but it seemed the case was closed.  What a teaching opportunity grandmother had missed.  It was the opportunity to teach her young granddaughter about love, loss, courage and survival.   Grandma Jensen could have told me about how she met my grandpa and stories about their life together, stories that would be passed down through the generations.

I guess that the early 1940’s was a time where children were seen and not heard and we didn’t dwell on unpleasant things. After all, we had just been through World War II and there were so many losses to be endured.

Well, I am now seventy years old and I recently read an article by Dr. Howard Winokuer and my daughter Dr. Heidi Horsley, which will be published in The Compassionate Friends Magazine on talking to children about death.  Reading their advice inspired me to write an article with grandparents in mind.

In 1983, my 17-year-old son Scott was killed in a car accident.  After his death, I was determined to keep his memory alive through sharing stories of him.  Although my grandchildren have never met Scott, I feel they have a good sense of who he was.  I have tried to instill in my grandchildren that although death is sad and painful, the love that we have for those who have died will always be with us guiding the way.

Heidi and Howard have told us that it is important to remember that children tend to grieve in short segments and then go out and play!  Grandmother Jensen died of cancer when I was twelve years old and I remember my older sister, Martha Margaret, named after grandma, and I playing cards in the basement with a cousin.  We had a home viewing in Grandmother Jensen’s house, and my mother was furious that we wouldn’t go upstairs.

If she had merely asked us how we felt we could have told her that we were really going to miss grandma and seeing her upstairs in the coffin was something we were having difficulty dealing with.  So, Mom, if you are listening up there, all I can say is that we were grieving even though it didn’t look like it.

As a grandparent ,you may be asking yourself questions such as:  What will we say?  What will we do?  How do we best help our grandchild after the death?  Below is some useful advice from Heidi and Howard’s article which I have changed a bit to relate to grandparenting.

What can be said?  What can be done?  First and foremost, children need to be made aware that they still live in a safe and predictable world after the death of a family member.  Be reassuring, and behave in ways that communicate to your grandchild that you are still there for them and will continue to attend their events and play with them even though you are grieving.  Further, it is very comforting for children to know that they are not alone in their grief and that you will get through this difficult time together.

I think one of the obstacles to talking with our grandchildren may be their parents, our children.  I would guess that well-meaning parents may instruct the grandchildren not to bother their grandparents.  I would hope my children would encourage their children, our grandchildren, to approach us and to talk about memories. I am sure it won’t be easy for any of us.  But death is a fact of life.

You may even want to talk with your children about the fact that you are available to talk to the grandchildren and that crying is ok.  Even though parents often have the best intentions in mind, it is important to remind your children that a relationship with the grandchild is special and they can “let it happen.”  The old joke goes that children and grandparents are bonded because they have the same enemy: the parents.

When talking to the grandchildren, it is important to be aware that children oftentimes take things very literally.  When you tell your grandchild that someone died because they were sick, you might have a child who is afraid every time he or she gets a cold.  Kids often have difficulty differentiating between being sick with a cold or the flu versus being sick from cancer or some other terminal illness.

Best also not to tell your young grandchildren that the person who died just went away as they may not see them that often and they may be waiting for them to come back.  Also, saying that someone just went to sleep is probably not a good idea either.  Once again, remember that kids take things literally, and they may develop sleep difficulties because of fears that if they fall asleep, they will not wake up.

The following are some helpful things that can be said and done that will help your grandchildren explore their grief and express their feelings.  I am sure you and your friends can add to this list.

* Allow Expressions Of Feelings – I am sure you know that there are a wide range of feelings that are associated with the grief.  Let your grandchildren know that feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. 

*Create an Open and Supportive Environment – Provide honest answers and age appropriate information.  Your younger grandchildren may be more comfortable drawing, writing stories, or acting out their emotions in their play, rather than talking.  Teenagers may just want you to hang out with them.

* Communicate Through Touch – This is a natural one for grandparents. Touch often express thoughts and feelings that words cannot.  Putting an arm around the grandchild, sitting close to them, holding them on your lap or even holding their hand lets you and them know that we are not alone.

* Talk About Worries and Concerns – Children often express a lot of worries after loss.  They may begin to act younger and become clingy and whiney.  Regression is a common reaction and often doesn’t last too long.  Be supportive and don’t criticize regressive behavior.

* Encourage Your Grandchildren to Ask Questions – Don’t be afraid to answer your grandchild’s questions openly and honestly.  The truth is always easier for a child to deal with rather than the often frightening fantasy that they might create in their mind, if not given information.

* Keep a Sense of Humor – Remember, as Art Linkletter used to say, “Kids Say The Darndest Things.”  Remind yourself and your grandchildren of the fun times that you all had together.  Don’t be afraid to be a bit silly.

Above all, let your grandchildren know that although you are devastated over the loss, life is still worth living and remind them how grateful you are to have them in your life.


Howard R. Winokuer, Ph.D., FT

The Winokuer Center for Counseling and Healing

Heidi Horsley, PsyD, LMSW, MS

Executive Director: Open to Hope Foundation

Gloria Horsley

More Articles Written by Gloria

Dr. Gloria Horsley is an internationally known grief expert, psychotherapist, and bereaved parent. She started "Open to Hope" to help the millions in the world with grief. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Nurse Specialist, and has worked in the field of family therapy for over 20 years. Dr. Horsley hosts the syndicated internet radio show, The Grief Blog which is one of the top ranked shows on Health Voice America. She serves the Compassionate Friends in a number of roles including as a Board of Directors, chapter leader, workshop facilitator, and frequently serves as media spokesperson. Dr. Horsley is often called on to present seminars throughout the country. She has made appearances on numerous television and radio programs including "The Today Show," "Montel Williams," and "Sallie Jessie Raphael." In addition, she has authored a number of articles and written several books including Teen Grief Relief with Dr. Heidi Horlsey, and The In-Law Survival Guide.

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