Losing a grandparent is often a child’s first experience with death. It can be confusing and scary and lead to questions about death, death related rituals, and grief. Dealing with loss can be difficult, but at the same time, a child can grow in maturity and understanding through this experience.
Every person’s response to the death of a loved one and the ensuing grief is unique. There’s no one way to grieve, no right or wrong response, nor should we judge how a person grieves. I’m sharing our family’s experience because it was so peaceful, loving and natural.
A Grandpa’s Passing
My husband, Sonny, passed away at 8:20 am on September 17 — just three months after we celebrated our 50th anniversary in the ER. Sadly, his health had been rapidly declining and he peacefully passed away at home in my arms.
As difficult as these past three months have been, they were a gift — not just to Sonny and me but also to our children and three granddaughters. We knew we had a finite amount of time together and we cherished that time.
Our two older granddaughters, aged 15 and 11, could see their beloved “Zayde” (Yiddish for grandpa) getting weaker. We talked openly about his declining health to help them understand what was happening. They visited often and talked on the phone almost daily.
His death was not a surprise but it was their first experience with losing a loved one. Their response was so mature and touching that I’m sharing it in this post along with some resources for helping grandchildren cope with loss.
In the hours before his death, it became apparent the end was near. A hospice nurse was present and advised me to call my daughter and let her know. She lives two hours away and had just visited the previous day. I asked the nurse whether our granddaughters should come to say goodbye. When I called my daughter, she said the girls wanted to say goodbye.
While they were on their way, Sonny took his last breath. I called and told my daughter. When she and my son-in-law and granddaughters arrived, Sonny was lying under the covers wearing his favorite black Universite Paris France t-shirt. He looked as peaceful as if he was just taking a nap.
My daughter rushed to her father’s side, embracing him and sobbing. The girls hung back tentatively unsure how to respond to their first death. I told them they didn’t have to come in the room if they felt uncomfortable. As the reality set in, they both began to cry.
I explained that their Zayde had died peacefully and I was holding him when he took his final breath. This experience of having children present at a death was new to me and I was trying to follow my intuition. Both girls are mature and empathic. They loved him deeply. I told them he would remain at home until the late afternoon when a mortician would come and take him to the funeral home.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon, we walked in and out of the bedroom saying our goodbyes, kissing his cheek, stroking his beard. I was touched by how comfortable the girls became. When the morticians arrived to take him away, we all took turns hugging him. Then we walked outside, waved goodbye as the hearse drove away and hugged each other.
I’ve told many friends this story and they’ve all responded the same: what a precious gift you gave your granddaughters; what a beautiful way for them to see that death is a natural part of life and not to be feared.
Resources for Grief and Loss
Canadian Virtual Hospice has an excellent article on Talking with Kids about Illness which addresses all ages.
Hospice of Santa Cruz has made a wonderful booklet about talking with children regarding serious illness. At the end of the booklet there is a listing of recommended books for kids as well.
The Dougy Center is a rich resource for children, teens and young adults who are grieving a death. They publish an activity book to do with kids.
My own personal local grief support services is Kara, where my husband Sonny volunteered as a grief counselor.
While you may not need these resources now, I hope you’ll share them with family and friends who do or keep them for the future.