How to speak to your grandchildren about grief and death

Coming to terms with grief is especially hard as a young child.

Grief can be one of the hardest emotions to deal with at any age, but for a small child, it’s also extremely confusing and can be very scary.

That’s why children so badly need the adults in their lives to help them make sense of the emotions they may be feeling, and while parents play a huge role in this, grandparents are a much-needed support to their grandkids too, especially if the parents aren’t available or are suffering with grief themselves.

While some grandparents may step back – often amid worries they could say the wrong thing – others are keen to help, and it’s important to ensure that their grandkids know they can speak openly to them about how they’re feeling. Experts have shared advice with Starts at 60 on how to approach difficult conversations with grandkids, whether those talks are about illness and death or another emotionally charged topic.

Ensure the message is right

When a young child experiences grief for the first time, experts say it’s essential that they receive a clear explanation about what has happened to cause the upset. For that reason, Sian Khuman, practice specialist for therapeutic services at Relationships Australia, advises parents or guardians, grandparents and other relatives or close friends to speak between themselves first before chatting to grandkids, to ensure they’re passing on the same information to the child.

“There has to be a consistent message,” she told Starts at 60. “Even sometimes holding off on that conversation, until you’ve had a conversation with the parents, to plan how to say it can be good, especially if the kids are younger, from two to around six or seven.”

Read more: ‘It’s hard not to imagine any of us not being affected by grief’

The message doesn’t have to be complex. In fact, the Bereavement Advice Centre says that keeping it simple and honest is best.

Keep communication lines open

Kids, no matter what their age, are likely to have a lot of questions if they’re experiencing grief or are upset, and speaking about it can be hugely helpful for them.

 “When kids ask, it should never be ignored,” Khuman said. “Always respond and acknowledge it, say ‘that’s a good question, let’s talk about that’. That way, it doesn’t become a fearful or anxious conversation.”

She said the concept of dying can be “anxiety-provoking” and can spark different reactions depending on each child, but that it’s important that any anxiety around the subject of illness or death is eliminated as soon as possible. She explained: “If someone has died, or ‘mum or dad are crying’, in most cases it’s recommended you do explain it to children. Even if it’s just ‘someone has died, that’s what happens, and we’re very sad about it’.”

Don’t delay the conversation

Depending what has happened, it’s possible you’re experiencing grief at the same time as your grandchildren, but it’s essential you speak to them early on.

The Raising Children Network says timing is key, so they don’t hear about it from someone else and become confused and angry. Once they understand that a person has become seriously ill or died, the network says that there are methods to help children cope with the worries that may cause them.

“It’s a good idea to let [them] know that most people die only when they’re really old and very sick,” it advises. “If the death involved a young person, let your child know that this doesn’t happen very often. You could also point out how many other people he knows of the same age who are alive and well.”

The network says adults should try to pass on a similar simple explanation when talking to a child about a traumatic event, such as a serious accident or illness.

“If a family member or friend is injured, has died or is missing, talk with your child about this tough topic,” it says. “Try to explain in a way that gives your child the truth without scaring him. For example, ‘Aunty Lena has gone to hospital in the ambulance. The paramedics are using special equipment to help her breathe right now’.”

Take into account their maturity

Exactly what you tell a child depends a lot on their age and level of development.  The Raising Children Network says that if the child is able to understand the permanence of death, it’s preferable to use the word “death” instead of “passed away” or “gone to sleep”, or risk confusing the child.

“If you say that someone has ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’, your child might be confused or frightened. For example, a child who is told that ‘Grandpa has gone to sleep forever’ might get scared of sleeping because she’s afraid she’ll never wake up,” the website adds.

Khuman agreed and said that the age of the child should be what determined the amount of detail that should be included in the explanation. “The younger the child is, the simpler you make it, and the less detail you give,” she explained.

Read more: From death to divorce, how grief can take many forms

What if a child is very sensitive or young?

Khuman said she understands that many families are reluctant to tell young children that someone has died, but in suggested that rather than lying or prevaricating, a parent or grandparent could simply say that they’re sad, but it “has nothing to do with you, it’s just a bad time” in order to reassure the child.

“Children are so perceptive, and pick up your emotions, so if they sense sadness, they could internalise it and think they’ve done something wrong themselves,” she explained.

Have you struggled to have a difficult conversation with a grandchild? How did you go about it?

Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up