My father is very sick in hospital, battling a long illness with cancer and we’ve recently been told it is terminal. My son is very close to his grandfather and I don’t know how to explain his illness to him. He’s seven now and knows Grandad is very sick but how do I explain he’s dying?
I’m sorry to hear about your father’s illness and I am sure it must be a hard time for you and your family. When grandparents are ill and close to death, it is a tough time for all the family. As a parent, you have to cope with your own grief and loss, as well as thinking of how best to help your own children.
Usually these times are very pressured with lots to do in terms of practical caring and spending time with the ill grandparent. You also have to decide how to explain what is happening to children and how much to involve them in visiting their grandparent.
Children cope very individually with loss and grief so you are right to take time to think how you can best help your son. Below are some guidelines.
Communicate with your son about what is happening
Rather than avoiding the subject, it is important to explain to your son about his grandfather’s illness in an age-appropriate way. Try to be matter of fact in your explanations and then to listen carefully to any questions he might have. For example, you might say, “Poor Grandad is very sick at the moment, his heart is not working as well as it used to,” and then wait to see what he might say.
As well as giving information it is also important to talk about feelings. For example, you might say, ‘It is sad that Grandad is sick . . . and I am glad we can take time to care for him now,” and so on, and allow space for your son to respond.
Help your son be involved in caring
It is helpful to allow your son to care for his grandfather in an age-appropriate manner. For example, you might encourage him to make cards for Grandad, send in colourful pictures for his hospital room, make biscuits for him or remember him in his thoughts each night.
Visiting Grandad can also be very helpful (both for him and Grandad) but it is important to prepare him for these carefully, especially if Grandad is very sick. For example, you might warn him, “Grandad can be very tired because he is sick so he might not be able to play much, but he might like to hear you read your story,” or “Grandad might look at bit different when you visit, because he has a special tube in his nose to help him breathe.”
You also might keep the visits short and pick a time of day when your father is more alert and prepared for the visit himself and when you have time to support your son. The goal of this is to try to make it as good an experience as possible for both of them.
Telling your son that his grandfather is dying
It is a delicate matter of timing as to when you might tell your son that his grandfather is dying. Some parents wait until the parent is close to death or until the child asks directly about it. It is important that you think through in advance what you might say.
Some parents explain death in a religious context, for example, that the grandparent is going to heaven, and others explain death as something that happens in the natural order of things (using the analogy of a pet dying, and so on).
There are lots of children’s books that talk about serious illness and death that you could read with your son to help open the conversation. For example, Waterbugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney (written from a Christian context), When Dinosaurs Die by Laura Krasny or When Someone Has a Very Serious Illness by Marge Heegaard (both from a secular context).
One advantage of talking to your son in advance is that he can have time to prepare to say goodbye either by making a final visit (if that is possible) or by sending a special card to Grandad. This, of course, could be a very emotional experience for your son which he will need some support to get through.
Children’s individual coping
Children cope in very individual ways with the loss of a grandparent and indeed with anyone in their life. Some understand it in the context of people getting older and passing on, and can cope very well once life continues in relatively the same way after the grandparent has gone.
Some children can be more deeply affected and they can become upset at their own loss (especially if the grandparent was a carer in their life) or they can become upset if they see their own parents distressed and upset. For other children, the loss can stir up uncertainties and anxiety. For example, many children fear that a grandparent dying might mean their parents are going to die too.
The important thing is to listen carefully to how your son is coping. In general, young children cope well with the loss of a grandparent, once they feel their parents are okay and will continue to be there to support them.
Focus on your own coping
When it comes to grief about a grandparent, children often follow the lead of their parents. If you can show your son that you are coping well, this will help your son. It is appropriate to acknowledge sadness at the loss as well as to encourage remembering and celebrating all the good things about Grandad’s life.
If you find yourself very upset, seek your own support by talking to close friends or family members and by seeking professional help yourself. There are many good counselling services and online supports for dealing with bereavement.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, May 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
For information on John’s courses for parents see www.solutiontalk.ie