What is the best way for parents, and other family members, to prepare a six-year-old for the serious illness and impending death of his granddad who is in hospital?
It is good to protect our children from harm. Sometimes we think we can protect children from death. We can’t. Death is part of living.
There are two simple rules:
- Be honest
- Encourage him to ask questions
When his granddad dies, your child will miss him. He may be upset. He may be angry. He may be afraid. These emotions are normal.
You should tell him his granddad is very sick and may die soon. But spare him some of the details. He may ask questions. Answer them simply and truthfully. Do not be afraid to use the words “death” and “dying”, or the name of the illness.
If your family believes in God or life after death, explain these to him. But if you don’t, that is fine.
He could visit, if his granddad wants. Don’t make visits too long. Explain if granddad is looking different. “Granddad has cancer and he is really skinny.” “He won’t look the same.” “Granddad is really tired and falls asleep all the time now”
If granddad is acting very strangely because of illness, drugs or pain, explain that ahead of time. Keep the visit short.
Reassure him that he can’t catch what granddad has and that he has not caused Granddad’s illness. Remind him that mom and dad and auntie and uncle are fine (if they are). Tell him you will take care of him.
Share some of your feelings. Make it simple. If there are any resentments or bad feelings, don’t discuss them. You may say “I am really sad about grandpa being so sick. I will miss him when he is gone. What do you feel?”
Let him express his feelings. Accept what he says.
If he is close to his granddad, he will need more time. More time to talk. More time to visit. Maybe he wants to draw a picture or write a note or record a song for granddad. Reading children’s books that talk about death can be helpful.
Talk about what a good life his granddad has had. Remind him of the good times he has had with his granddad.
Going to the funeral and even the gravesite is a way of helping children cope. Prepare him for what will happen at the funeral. Have someone he knows well take care of him at the funeral so if he gets bored, you aren’t distracted. He may need extra attention that you can’t give at that time.
It is a time of stress in a family. If possible get some help with the house. Keep as many routines as possible. Spend some positive, special time with your six-year-old. Try not to neglect him.
Be gentle with yourself and him. He may act up more. Don’t let him get away with misbehaviour.
The Canadian Virtual Hospice has more information on this topic. Thanks for consultation to Simone Stenekes, Clinical Nurse Specialist from the Palliative Care Service at the IWK Health Centre.