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When a Loved One is Ill

Posted by Jen on February 3, 2010 at 7:00 AM in Raising Girls
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the light will find me

How do you handle it when a grandparent or loved one is dying and you have to decide whether or not to include your children in the experience? How do you know when it's too much? Or whether being exposed to the natural process of losing those we love is a life process that your child is ready to face? How do you deal with your own grief at the same time?

This is a question we've encountered this last week as Madeleine and Carter's great-grandfather on their dad's side is clearly reaching his last days. To make decision-making more complicated, the news came while I'm overseas working on a project. Thankfully, modern technology made a simple text conversation possible. Here's what we decided.

Take age into account. Madeleine, at eleven, is probably more capable of taking in a sad scene, than Carter who is still, at eight, developing language for more emotional events.

Consider the personality. Carter is a natural emotional sponge who takes in visual content deeply. Seeing his grandfather dying might have a different impact on him than Madeleine who handles difficult subjects more directly and expressively.

Look at the family. At this point in our family life, it might be a good bonding experience for Madeleine to spend time with her dad. They both know how to be compassionate and offer their presence in a similar comforting way. With me being away, it might not make sense for me to get on a plane and do another trip--especially when this experience might be too much for Carter.

We decided in the end, Madeleine should go and I should come home and stay with Carter. Since this is a loved one who the children do not know well, we felt it was okay to not have both kids go, since the loss will not be primarily theirs. Madeleine would have the experience of being with family at a difficult time as well as the opportunity to share an important moment with her dad. Carter and I will process in a more conversational way at home.

This is a very sad time, but I trust that Madeleine will be shaped and formed by seeing how deeply loved her great-grandfather is and how important she is to her dad who loves them both so much.


Allison writes...

Great post. My sister (who is 30) is losing her battle with leukemia, and we know it is just a matter of months before she passes. She has two small kids (ages 6 and 5) that were already living with my mom. We have talked with her kids about her situation, and that she is going to die. They are acting out, and we know that is their way of expressing their pain. They are in therapy, and have a good support system with the church.

As for my kids, they are not that close with her, however we have chosen to talk to them about it because they are close to their cousins. My older one (almost 5)has had a LOT of questions about what happens when you die (physically). He is a deep thinker, and a controller, and he needs to know what to expect.

We have let them all know that we are all sad about my sister's illness, and are trying to show them that it is alright to be sad and upset.

Jennifer writes...

My husband's mother recently died from a brief battle with cancer. The decline was obvious, and she's out of town, which makes it interesting. We felt it was important to tell them the process as we went along - when she was diagnosed, when she stopped chemo, when she was going to hospice - so they wouldn't be surprised. Since she's out of state, they felt like it was just normal when she died; they weren't used to seeing her anyway. But the funeral made it real for them. We made it a point to answer them honestly to try to take the mystery out of it. Not easy to do when you're grieving too, but we thought it was important. I think now is the most critical time - after it's over, how do we pinpoint what's grieving and what's not, and continuing to let them know it's OK to be sad. My husband lost his dad when he was young, so he could talk to them about how he felt, and that helped too. In all, as with most things, treating our kids like people who can understand things in their own way was important to us. Who knows if we're doing it right? We can just hope.

Janice writes...

As a hospice nurse, I can tell you that kids know a lot more than you think. So don't lie to them and don't try to protect them too much either. Ask them if they are scared and tell them that you are scared, too. That it is okay to be scared. And to be sad. But that it is also okay to play and laugh and be happy at times.

Ask them if they want to talk about it. If they say no, that is okay. They don't have to talk. They can write things down or draw pictures. Most kids will seek the normal. Let them be normal. Let them be kids.

Mikhail writes...

if children were close and can handle it, of course you should include them. You have to talk to them and see what they want to do, don't decide for them, but decide together. I would be devastated if my grandma died without seeing me. I was 13 and I knew I could not help her, but I looked into her eyes when she was dying and felt her love as I hoped she felt mine! Therapy sessions and church talk is not for me. Especially church, that has its own agenda at times like these. A depression pill will only mask your emotional pain. Teach your kids to cope as early as possible, so they know what to do when something like this happens. That's my opinion.

Yolanda O'Brien writes...

My mother died at home. Our children ranged in age from 3 to 14. They all knew that their grandmother was dying and saw her everyday. At the very end all the children 8 and under were kept from the experience of her death bed. The older children were asked if they wanted to be there at her death. They decided, after much discussion, that wanted to remember her alive, so we did not have them with us when she passed away. She was with her daughters (I'm #2), close family members that she requested and 2 very close friends. It was a beautiful moment.

The older children actively participated in her funeral Mass. Only my youngest, who had been diagnosed with Autism, did not attend the funeral.

Each case is different for each family. And one must respect that. I am sorry for the loss of your great-grandfather. As my eldest told me on the day of the funeral, "I have no more grandparents." My heart broke, but I agreed with him and then said, "I have no parents anymore." And my son replied, "I'm sorry your an orphan, but you have me." Thank God for the children.

Angie Lile writes...

Thank you for this post! My great aunt is passing soon and I know that it would mean a lot to her to see my grand-daughters. She has Parkinson's though, so I run the risk of an episode of dimentia and I didn't want to scare my girls. I've been trying to decide the best course because I firmly believe that death should be celebrated as the transition that I believe it to be, and that the person who is dying would go more peacefully with their loved ones near.

Thanks for providing insight into my decision and for the timely manner in which I found it. ;)

Victoria writes...

This is an excellent post. Many years ago, when a family member died, little thought was given to the children and the affect it might have on them. Seeing my first dead body, my grandfather, in a coffin at about 4 years old, along with my father's grief, was too much for me at the time. Taking into account the child's age, and their personality, makes sense to me.

Every family needs to make very personal decisions about how to proceed when dealing with a family crisis such as death and dying.

As a past hospice social worker and current Child and Family therapist, I know that kids need the truth in an age appropriate manner, with loving adults to support them. I firmly believe that adults, after explaining what is happening and what the child would experience, should allow children to make the decision.

My mother-in-law, at age 8, was never allowed to attend her parents' funeral. Her parents died together in an auto accident and she had to hear of it on the radio. She recalls running through a field screaming afterwards. While that is an extreme case, I do think that we do not give children enough credit in terms of their capability to manage and handle the difficult emotions related to loss.

Often, what kids imagine is far worse than the reality. I do have a few links to articles on supporting grieving children. When time allows, I'll come back and share them.

I believe we should honor our children by giving them choices and explaining to them what is happening. This can actually HELP them in the grieving process.

Robert writes...

Excellent. Personally I am in favor of participation by the young ones. In my case, younger than age three ...

Linda writes...

When my in-laws' neighbor was very near death, their five-year-old great-nephew gently took her hands in his and prayed aloud for/with her. That simple act allowed them both to let go and say goodbye. It was completely his idea, completely without any adult prompting. Children are so wise!

GailNHB writes...

You are a wise woman and a loving mother, Jen. Your children are so blessed to have you with them and loving them and looking after them. They will both be glad that you have decided to handle this situation as you have.

When my father was dying of cancer, my children were 4 and 7. They both knew what was going on even though they didn't see him very often at the end. They cried. They recalled good times with him. They wrote him letters; my little one wrote one that was to be laid with my father in his casket. They loved him to the end and beyond. I am glad we didn't keep them out of the loop.

In the end, the most important thing is to figure out what works for each of your children and doing what you believe to be best. It sounds like you have done just that. You inspire me to be the best mother I can be. Thanks for sharing this with us.

My thoughts and prayers are with you at this difficult time. May peace and comfort and strength be yours.

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