How to Help Children Cope With the Loss of a Grandparent
How to give children the right tools to deal with emotional pain and grief
Watching your child grieve after their grandparent has died, perhaps even more so when it’s one of your own parents, and not knowing what to say or do is a profoundly difficult experience.
We often hear statements such as: “Children are resilient.” Many children aren’t resilient. They are surviving and getting on with their lives, leaving grief to come out later. Adults might make the mistake of thinking that a child is fine, as they are dancing and smiling, when really, they have pushed the feelings down because they don’t have the tools to deal with them.
When the grief does come out later, perhaps as an adult, they might minimise their grief with the mistaken idea that time should have healed them by now. The unresolved grief will still be inside.
Another term we hear is that adults want to protect children from the hurt of bereavement, and they’re scared of the effect of it. Being strong for our children models the behaviour that when they lose someone, they too must be strong and put on a brave face. It’s not realistic to protect children from everything sad or frightening in life.
What we can do is give them the right tools to deal with emotional pain and grief. Even when we can’t control outside events, we can control how we talk and listen to our children.
For children, it’s hard for them to conceptualise what they’ve lost, especially if they haven’t seen their grandparent in the final stages of life. As the adult who has lost a parent, your raw grief may not be mirrored in your children, as they may not be feeling that loss yet.
This might feel frustrating for you. However, the feelings of loss might be delayed or diluted by perhaps not seeing them for a while.
Children may start to worry when anyone they’re close to becomes ill, and may feel unsafe to leave home, as someone might die. They could become anxious about going to school. A conversation with school will mean you can work together to help them feel safe again.
When a child loses a significant adult in their life, there are some common symptoms that indicate all is not right with them. A few examples are:
Reduced ability to concentrate
Lack of, or too much sleep
A different relationship with food or alcohol
Sudden changes in behaviour
Grief reactions in younger and older children are typically the same but may present differently. A younger child may have a tantrum, whereas a teenager might slam a door. Knowing these could be symptoms of grief can help children and adults to then start to deal with those underlying feelings.
Children may not know they’re experiencing grief, but it may manifest itself in physical symptoms, for example headaches, lots of colds, unexplained pains, stomach aches, or clenching teeth in their sleep.
How can you help?
Remember that children close their ears to advice but open their eyes to example. How you model grief will set their grief beliefs for life. (No pressure!)
We always start by telling you to ‘put your own oxygen mask on first.’ Taking steps to move beyond your feelings of loss will help you to be in a better place to support your children.
Remember that all grief and reactions to grief are unique, as is your relationship and your children’s relationship with your parent and their grandparent.
Before you start talking, ensure you’re in a safe space to talk without interruption.
Don’t try to fix the problem. Instead, start the conversation with being emotionally honest about your feelings. Use ‘feeling’ words, such as ‘I feel sad, scared, exhausted,’ etc. Talk to them in age-appropriate language.
Then ask, ‘how are things with you right now?’ The ‘right now’ is important, as this can change with the wind! They might also not feel like talking in that particular moment, and that is fine. Keep checking in at regular intervals, so they know they don’t have to grieve in isolation.
Once they start talking, stop yourself from talking and just listen. Stay in the moment while they’re talking and avoid becoming distracted by your own thoughts.. You don’t need to add anything, simply let them talk, as grievers need to be heard.
Don’t make promises, such as ‘everything is going to be ok.’ Instead, say ‘We’re going to do everything to help us be safe,’ which includes being emotionally safe.
You can give them examples and ask: ‘Does that sound like something you might be feeling?’
Acknowledge their feelings and reassure them they’re normal and natural reactions to grief. Then ask them if they would like a hug.
Communication with school will help, too. School is a safe place for most children with adults they trust. By letting them know what’s going on at home, you can work together to support the child.
Dealing with grief at different ages
We are not born with self control and younger children especially handle unusual or difficult situations with a ‘fight or flight’ response. They haven’t quite developed a way to regulate their feelings in a socially acceptable way.
To support them through this, remember to B.R.E.A.T.H.E.:
Be calm. Learn to pause before reacting.
Remove them from their situation to help them to calm down.
Explain that you can see they’re angry and you want to help them.
Acknowledge their feelings. (This doesn’t validate their behaviour, it shows empathy).
Then give them the opportunity to talk while you listen.
Hug them to provide the security they might need.
Explain that their feelings are normal and ask them what they could have done differently.
Helping children to reflect on their actions and thinking about how you react will encourage them to approach similar feelings in the future. It may take practice, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself!
Young children need simple explanations. Left to their own devices and imaginations, children often arrive at incorrect conclusions. Accurate information helps them understand the world around them. They tend to think about things in concrete, literal ways.
Avoid abstract concepts, such as: ‘Grandma has gone upstairs,’ ‘Grandad is up in the sky,’ or ‘Nanna is passed away.’ Instead, saying they have died is straightforward for them to understand.
If your child hasn’t experienced any kind of death or pet loss before, you might want to use a dead insect in the garden, or a dead bird you spot when you’re out walking as an example, so they know death is final.
Slightly older children will understand that death is final and may feel overwhelmed by strong feelings. They may feel isolated. If you see them removing themselves or becoming withdrawn, they may not consciously be aware of it, or they might be grieving alone. When other children ask about the death, they may feel a shame about it, or be embarrassed about their feelings.
Teenagers may feel pressure to appear independent and in control. Their responses may seem grown up and they may present as being fine, and then they might behave selfishly or insensitively, or behave recklessly. Providing opportunities for them to talk to you will help them express their feelings. Revisit these conversations regularly, so they have an outlet for their feelings.
At a time when we haven’t been able to hold the funerals we wanted, or you’ve chosen not to include your children in the funeral, planning a memorial event can help children to have an opportunity to say goodbye. Lighting candles at a set time and sharing photos and memories with one another also shows solidarity. Putting a few photos of their grandparent around the house will serve as a visual reminder of them and will become a normal part of your home rather than a painful memory.
How can we help?
The website also has lots of free articles and resources for you to browse. Please also connect with us on social media (links below). You don’t need to go through loss alone.
Maria Bailey is an Advanced Grief Recovery Specialist based near Torquay, Devon, where she lives with her husband, three children and two dogs. Maria uses the Grief Recovery Method, a short action programme via Zoom, to mainly help people who have lost loved ones to cancer and Covid-19. You can find out more about Maria here.