By Jack Wilson
When Grandma (or anyone else close) is dying we need to consider the children’s lack of sophistication about death. But children know more than we think and know it sooner than we realize. It is best to let them in on what is going on in the household to the degree that they can understand. If you conceal the truth, it only teaches them to do the same and that you don’t have faith in them. When they are very young they need to cope on a fantasy level. They are glad to hear stories which they can feel a part of. Stories about make-believe are fine, but not to deceive them, just to distract and comfort. Always answer their questions as honestly as you can. If you don’t know the answer, say so.
By age seven they are finished with pre-school and kindergarten and have negotiated the world of the school yard and the neighborhood and have a lot more savvy than we may believe. Even so, they need to be spoken to with care. No need to be sentimental about it, but show as much warmth and love as possible so they feel secure. Holding them and rocking is very beneficial. It can help children to deal with human mortality if you talk about the life cycles of plants and animals. They will have had experience with seeing plants die and probably animals, and will surely have seen movies in which animals die. It is worthwhile to help them to realize that our grief is for ourselves because we don’t have that wonderful person in our lives anymore, not for the dead person who is beyond awareness. Don’t be afraid to laugh and make them laugh.
While she is alive, have the children start a scrapbook with pictures of them and Grandma together. Have them draw pictures of Grandma as they remember her earlier and as she looks now. Have them write stories about the past with Grandma and where they think Grandma is going. Have them make a greeting card every day and have them present it to her. Save the cards for the scrapbook. Take pictures of the presentation. Grandma smiling is a wonderful keepsake.
Make a recording of Grandma’s voice; take a movie with her and the children if you can. Encourage them to sit and play quietly near her when she is sleeping. Ask them about their dreams every morning. Have them make a banner saying WE LOVE YOU GRANDMA to hang in her room.
They may want to see her body in the casket. You will need to exercise judgment about that. It can be traumatic or it can be comforting. Consider the children’s relative vulnerability. Include them as much as possible in the funeral and the activities afterward. Give them tasks so they feel that they have made a contribution.
Here is a site that helps in talking to children about death: http://www.hospicenet.org/html/talking.html
Children often feel guilty about the death of a close one, as if they were somehow responsible for the death. Assign them some responsibilities of a ceremonial or ritual nature such as lighting candles, singing a song, creating a shrine. The more they participate in the last months and days, the more they will be able feel that they did their best and they will have memories to cherish and less guilt to worry about.