How do you help grandparents who have recently lost their spouse, or life partner?
You show up. You listen. You offer to talk to their grandkids who are struggling with their own fears and tears. Nothing will ever be the same, and suggesting otherwise is demeaning.
Affirm positive steps, and suggest counseling, grief classes and support groups for the family. Child/teen-focused grief release programs, such as the Dougy Center in Oregon or Comfort Zone Camp in Virginia do incredible work.
What do you do if the grandparent them self is dying?
This is 911 heart- stopping stuff but reality can’t be put off. These grandparents need a new home for their grandkids now, or as their health deteriorates. They need to talk with an attorney, grief counselor, and hospice to determine what’s possible, timelines, and how to legally, financially, and emotionally make it all happen.
Their caseworker must be involved if children are wards of the court. Sadly, some children will be returned to the foster care system, some to a barely functioning birthparent, and others transitioned to the home of an older sibling, aunt, adult-friend, or parents of their best friend.
In my latest book Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users there is a whole chapter devoted to the practical issues of estate planning, wills, guardianships, talking to extended family, and transitioning information for a new care-taker.
All children need to know where they are going to live. Every grandparent in this situation needs help. Offer to make appointments, talk to grandkids, or contact their faith community.
Helping grandkids deal with death: advice from professionals:
Tell kids immediately. Don’t let them hear from anyone else–and certainly not from a thoughtless media tweet or post–if you, or another family member is dying…or if someone they love is dead. Helping a little one, or teen, say goodbye is hard–but not giving them a chance to say goodbye if there is the opportunity is worse. Sixty plus years after my husband’s mother committed suicide, he is still dealing with the pain of no one talking about his mother, and not getting to go to her funeral.
Use the words died and death, not euphemisms. If you say grandma is asleep, went away, is with the angels, or ‘we lost her’–children, especially preschoolers, get confused. They expect sleeping people to wake up, and people who aren’t there to return eventually like when Papa comes home from work. They have no concept of forever.
Using words that describe everyday activities to explain death can lead to anxiety or fear. If papa was “sick” and “died” then they will be terrified when they, or anyone, gets sick. Explain only serious illnesses, or very bad accidents, cause death. There are some excellent child grief books including Tear Soup and Freddie the Leaf. There are equally good ones for teens and adults.
Let children attend a parent/or grandparent’s service. However, consider taking pre-schoolers to ‘after service’ gatherings only. Ask a trusted acquaintance to watch over them because you will be busy, grieving, and unable to deal with their short attention span, fidgeting, and questions about why people are crying or, “Where is grandpa?”
Ask children how they are feeling and ask often enough, and in enough different ways, to really “hear” what they are feeling. Reassure them by words and actions that whatever happens, they will be safe and with people who love them.
Help them put their feelings into words, or pictures, so they can process grief. Some will feel very sad for a long time, others not so much. Some will be angry and feel abandoned (don’t forget that for adolescents life is all about them). Reassure them that they aren’t responsible for the death.
Seek counseling for kids if there are prolonged:
-Changes in school performance and peer interactions.
-Difficulty in sleeping, nightmares, reverting to bed wetting, or needing you in the room while they fall asleep.
-Destructive behaviors such as temper tantrums, using drugs or alcohol, cutting, depression, stealing, bad language, isolating themselves in their bedroom, or sexual aggression.
-Refusal to talk about the deceased, or talking exclusively about them.
Grieving is not easy and there are no timetables, no pre-mapped steps. The activities of parenting often facilitates that a grandparents’ feelings and needs are set aside…but whether they are saying good-bye to their spouse, or saying a long good-bye to their grandkids, let them know you’ll be there.
Ask them if they are spiritually alright? I’m Christian, but spirituality can include agnostics, atheists, or anyone. Asking simply opens a conversation door that maybe no one else has been willing to walk through with them.
Regardless of your intent don’t tell them everything happens for a reason, heaven is a better place, or other similar comments. In the bible it says God never wastes a tear. Sometimes crying with another is one of the best comforts we can offer.