It’s often the case that children are shielded from the death of a grandparent, a relative or a loved one, for their own protection if nothing else. But in the eyes of author Annie Broadbent, this isn’t the way it should be.
Should grandparents start talking about death with their grandchildren?
For most people, their first experience of grief is the death of a grandparent. It is an inevitable and expected death. In this way, it is a fundamental experience for many children and adults for coming into first contact with death, dying and grief. And yet so often, grandchildren are kept away. I have heard many people tell me they were not allowed to go to their grandparents’ funeral. And other people share that there was little encouragement to see their grandparents before dying and how they regretted it later on. This is a crucial opportunity missed – an opportunity to start building a necessary and valuable relationship with death, a relationship that will serve us all throughout our whole life.
Parents play an important role here in facilitating that bridge between their children and their dying grandparents. But the responsibility also lies with grandparents. How different would things be if grandparents started talking about death and their experience of grief with their grandchildren when they are young? Young children are naturally open and curious about death. They learn to fear it from adults. So how would it be to dispel that fear by talking about it?
Parents play an important role here in facilitating that bridge between their children and their dying grandparents. But the responsibility also lies with grandparents.
If grandparents avoid talking about it, and grandchildren are kept away from it, the taboo around death and grief will remain firmly entrenched in that family. Surely, if grandparents lead the way in opening dialogues about death, not only will they model a healthy relationship with death and grief for their grandchildren, but, in doing so, it will affect their own relationship with death – their feelings about dying and confront any fears and doubts they may have.
Of course this isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do. The taboo around death exists for a reason. Death is big and uncertain and frightening. And we like to talk about things we know, especially to our children and grandchildren. Talking about something for which we might not have all the answers is a daunting prospect. But it is for this reason, and the others I have mentioned above, that it will be a rich and valuable experience – for grandparent and grandchild. It’s an experiment in radical honesty, taking a leap in to the unknown and trusting that it will be OK.
Annie's book Speaking of Death is available online and from all good booksellers. You can find out more about Annie on her website.
I read the article by Anne about sharing thoughts of grandparents dying. I do think it is a healthy idea to speak about death to all members of the family. But when I spoke about it to one of my grandchildren aged then 7 or 8, she said she didn't want to talk about me dying. It upset me because of the potential grief of my granddaughter, I realised that the idea that I won't always be around was something she didn't want to face up to yet and we must be sensitive that not everyone shares our opinion of better out than in.
I have posted at length on this subject in the past following the death of my mum last year. After many years of illness and 3-4 weekly kidney dialysis (that was becoming more and more impossible to do) my brave, brave mum made the decision that enough was enough and decided to withdraw all treatment including her dialysis and asked to be taken home from hospital (where she had spent months) to die in familiar surroundings. The hospital respected her decision and routinely she was visited by a psychiatrist and her specialist who both spoke to her about her decision and the outcome. We are a small family and my dad, sister and I all sat with her and talked openly about what would happen. The very next day a hospital bed was delivered to home along with various other pieces of equipment and my husband and I re-arranged the bedroom to accommodate everything. It was important to both my mum and dad that they would spend my mums last days and nights together in their bedroom. That very evening my mum arrived home by ambulance with the biggest smile on her face, (I'm tearful writing this) and announced that she was so glad to be home at last. My dad, sister, my lovely daughter and I spent the following days taking turns sitting with her. Sometimes we all piled in together and took over the big bed, with magazines, old photos and CD's. At mum's request we played her favourite music on a loop and we even managed to watch a couple of rubbish films too. As the days past my mum was becoming weaker and weaker and although she remained in the very best of spirits it was clear the end was near. My three gorgeous grand children had always enjoyed their weekly visits to my mum (their great grandma) and they hadn't been able to see her while she was in in hospital. To be honest those little ones were my mums favourite subject and she never tired of hearing about their antics, reliving every little detail over and over again. So with my son and daughter in laws blessing we decided that we should arrange a short, final visit. Before they arrived we explained that this would be the last time they would see her (on earth, as my little grandson, then 6, corrected me) and I am sure they understood. When they arrived ( well blew in like a whirlwind seems a more appropriate description) they piled into the bedroom and up onto her bed all wanting the best position, closest to great grandma. As usual they excitedly told her about what they had been up to, who had pushed who over, who had got into trouble and all the other bits of day to day tittle tattle she enjoyed hearing. they raided the fridge and brought out the colouring stuff from the big cupboard and spread it all over her bed. It was the happiest of sad times. Eventually when it was time for them to leave (my mum was getting very tired) they each kissed her and cuddled her and told her how much they loved her. My mum told them that she would always watch over them and when they left my mum cried with happiness (as did we all) and said that she felt so lucky to have had them little angels in her life. She died in the early hours of the morning just 2 days later. We did consider allowing the elder 2 to see her after death but decided against it, which we all still feel was the right decision.
Moving on. My grandchildren still talk about grandma dying. They recall word for word what she said to them and how she was so happy to see them. They absolutely know that she's in heaven watching them every day (something she promised to do). I am so pleased we did what we did. I am happy in the knowledge that she got to see her precious little people one last time and I know that if there is such a thing as a good death, then my mum had just that. x
We talk quite openly about, one day, we won't be here any more. We are all Christians so know we will meet again one day so, although saddened by the thought of parting, we can all cope with it. I would be amazed if they weren't upset when we do finally go but they would be secure in their knowledge of opus meeting again and secure in the love of their remaining family too. We don't "bang on about it" just whenever it sort of crops up as these subjects do. . . Like facts of life
We have never had any problems about talking about death with our children and grandchildren or including them in our shock and grief when things happen suddenly. For DGC their maternal grandfather, who died when DDiL was 5, and my sister, who died in a road accident before they were born are part of their family.
Their photos are about, we talk about them and at various times have acknowledged that we will die as well and discussed casually how we would like to be treated after death. They just take it for granted.
Thank you Laura for this valuable thread. (Might it be possible to post a link to it on the bereavement forum?)
As others have said, children are open and interested about death and it is good to talk openly with them about it,
In schools I have taught in, within the context of PHSE about death, I have taken in a photo of my DD2 and explained that she died in a car accident. Children have been full of questions and some have related to their own experiences of loss of grandparent - or pet! It has always generated positive conversations and if children have become teary, they have had lots of hugs and sympathy from classmates and the reassurance that it is natural to feel sad. I have always followed up with some sort of art/craft lesson that allows children the space to draw the person / pet they have lost if they want to and we have always had a quiet space for children to go to where they can write / share prayers, thoughts and memories in class.
Picture this extreme alternative: My mother lost her mother when she was 11 in 1942. Her mother died at home, just after giving birth to her fourth child. Not long after, with the body laid out in an upstairs bedroom, my mother was left on her own in the house without thought and care and 'discovered' her mother. Without exaggeration, that traumatic experience marked my mother for life and death was an unhealthy taboo in our family, rarely mentioned, but then always talked of in fearful tones while I was growing up.
With my own children, and in the context of Christian faith, we openly talked about death and my DD1 attended the funeral of her paternal GGF when she was 7, as did other young children in the family. We explained that she would not see a dead body and we used the terms death, dead - not 'gone to sleep' - which can give children nightmares about going to bed! As with a wedding, to see children present at a funeral adds a sense of perspective on the fullness of life and far from children making it uncomfortable for others, they were a great source of comfort and cheer on a hard day.
The picture book 'Badger's Parting Gifts' by Susan Varley, is a good way of opening up discussion about loss for children - it is also available in vide form on You Tube.