The death of a grandparent is often a child’s first experience with loss. It’s a matter of simple math: with two grandparents on each side of the family, and with grandparents being older and closer to the age at which it’s natural for people to start dying, the odds that a grandparent will die sometime during childhood are a lot higher.
The death of a grandparent can give children valuable practice in handling grief. Most children know their grandparents well enough to be bothered by the loss, but grandparents typically aren’t primary caregivers, so the loss is a lot easier for them to handle. It doesn’t cause the same type of world-shattering blow to their foundation in life that the death of a parent or sibling can cause.
How children are affected by the death of a grandparent
As is the case with parents, there’s quite a bit of variation in how involved grandparents are in a child’s life, and the closer that bond, the more it’s going to impact children. Some grandparents are quite involved in their grandchildren’s lives, functioning more like a parent figure than the typical second degree relative. Some grandparents are even custodial caregivers. When children lose one of these, their grief can be significant.
In most cases, however, grandparents aren’t as close or as involved as a parent. Therefore the death of a grandparent isn’t quite as painful. A grandparent’s death also doesn’t affect the stability of the family in most cases, which is where a lot of the potential for harm comes from. Of course, if their parent was extremely close to this person and becomes depressed and withdrawn because of it, thereby affecting the quality of care they provide, it can have a similar effect.
Talking to kids about the death of a grandparent & how to offer comfort
When a grandparent dies, kids typically want to know why this happened. More importantly, they also seek reassurance that you won’t succumb to the same fate anytime soon.
Many parents explain a grandparent’s death by saying something along the lines of, ‘grandma was very old, and it was her time to die.’ But just saying “she was old” doesn’t mean much to a young child. From the perspective of a kindergartner, you’re old too. Time is also a tough concept for kids to fathom, and they really don’t have much context for the type of time scales we’re referring to.
It’s better to try and explain things in terms of life cycles: Grandma was a child once of the same age you are, and then she finished grade school and junior high and then high school. Then she went to college and was all grown up, and then she got married, then she had kids of her own and watched as they all grew up. Then those kids grew up and became adults and had kids of their own, and then she became a grandparent. But as you get to be that age things can start to go wrong with your body, and it can lead to health problems that make you sick.
You also want to emphasize that this grandparent happened to die relatively young, and that many other people live much longer. You don’t want to give the impression that all humans come with a pre-ordained expiration date, especially as it pertains to you or other family members of a similar age. A lot of other people live much longer, so they may have you well beyond the time when they themselves become a grandparent. You might even point out people who live well beyond the age at which this grandparent died.
You should briefly talk about what this grandparent died from, assuming this is known. Having a rudimentary understanding of why it happened makes the death seem less mysterious, and therefore less scary.
You might also talk about the cycles of life, and how death is a natural part of this cycle that strikes the old to make way for the young; of age giving way to rejuvenation. It still hurts when this process takes away someone we love, but it will help them see this process itself as less sinister. Focus on this person having lived a full and enriching life.
Don’t over-explain the situation, or bombard children with a bunch of information they didn’t ask for. After you break the news, ask them if they have any questions, and then go from there. Keep the dialogue open, and adjust the communication to the needs of your child.
Should children attend a grandparent’s funeral?
The answer to this can depend on the age of the child, but if they’re old enough to voice their opinion, I would suggest leaving the decision up to them. Explain a bit about what will occur and then ask them if they’d like to go. See our information on children & funerals for additional information.
Grieving the death of a grandparent
Our e-book is full of activities and exercises that can help kids work through the loss of a loved one. In addition, here are a couple suggestions specifically related to the death of a grandparent:
A) This is the perfect time to get to know more about this grandparent’s life before your kids actually knew them. We often forget that a child’s relationship with their grandparents starts very late, and that this person had a whole life that existed before they came along…a life which kids typically know nothing about. So take this opportunity to teach them about this grandparent’s life before they were born.
Set out on a mission to explore this person’s life together. What various jobs did they do? What was their childhood like? Did they go to college? If so, where? What unique or unusual experiences happened along the way? What was their childhood and their parents like? What stories can Mom or Dad tell you about their experiences being raised by this grandparent? Hunt through old photo albums and seek the stories behind the pictures.
This activity can provide some solace and comfort as children grieve this loss. It helps reinforce the life cycle concept discussed earlier, and helps them better appreciate what a full and rich life this grandparent had. It shifts the tone of grieving, turning some of this sadness into more of a celebration of the life they had.
B) If your child lost their only nearby grandparent, and visiting their home had been somewhat of a ritual, consider visiting a retirement community or assisted living home to start a new ritual. Call ahead of time to arrange a visit and ask if there’s anything you can bring, but all you really should need are your children’s smiling faces. Residents of these communities are usually thrilled to have children around; I’ve arranged class trips with preschoolers to retirement homes before, and they usually went very well. Your kids might make some new friends. It’s a type of community service activity that children might enjoy, and it can help them see that there’s plenty of love and companionship to be found in this world.