Preparing Children for a Grandparent's Death

A mother seeks advice on how to prepare her children (ages 8, 11, and 20) for their grandmother's imminent decline and death.
I need to prepare my children (ages 8, 11, and 20) for their grandmother's imminent decline and death. I have told them that she has lung cancer, but I haven't told them how serious her illness is. What can I do?
I would not hide the fact from your kids that their grandmother is seriously ill. Tell them that she has lung cancer and that she is receiving the best medical care possible. Prepare them for how she might look and act when they do see her again. You might suggest that they could cheer her up by writing to her before they see her. I do not think that it's necessary to tell your two younger children that she will die soon, since you cannot predict her time of death with accuracy. Telling your kids that she will die soon places too much of an emotional burden on them, causing them to live in continuing dread and sadness. You can certainly be more detailed and candid with your 20-year-old about the projected timeline of her grandmother's failing health and eventual death.

Don't shut your children out of their grandmother's life because you believe that watching her become sicker and die would cause them too much pain. If they do ask if their grandmother will die, you may respond that she will die at some time because of this disease but that you do not know when that will be. Ask your children's librarian for books that address kids' dealing with a dying relative -- there are several excellent books that sensitively help kids cope with this difficult experience.

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

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