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Helping our Little Ones Cope with the Death of a Grandparent

Facing loss is hard at any age. We adults struggle to make sense of it, mourn and grieve. It’s especially difficult when toddlers and preschoolers are involved and the loss is their grandparent. For us this was amplified even more because we lost two grandparents in two years. As parents we had to cope with our own devastating loss of a parent while helping our children make sense of their loss. On top of the expected things like sadness, logistics, etc. confronting death with two little ones opened a few unexpected doors…and conversations that we didn’t think we would have for at least a few years.

David and I had moved back to the Chicago area from Atlanta in 2001 for the very purpose of raising our kids close to our families. We wanted our children to have their grandparents (and aunts, uncles, cousins) involved in their daily lives. We started enjoying this blessing right away, seeing each other often, having grandparents babysit, revelling in family dinners and outings. In July of 2003 my mom – Nana to my kids – passed away from complications from lung cancer. I talked a little about this in a previous post – Being a Mom without your Mom. But there’s so much more that we have to deal with when we as moms (and dads) lose a parent. In October of 2004, David’s dad (Tata to my kids) passed away from a sudden massive heart attack. This was something that we had no time to prepare for and came as a shock to all of us, including Mia and Ben who were still adjusting to the idea of their Nana not being here.    


When my mom passed away Mia was 5 and Ben was 2 ½ and this was the first conversation we had about death. We spoke with them separately first, then talked a little more together, and then answered questions whenever they asked from that point on. They (mostly Mia) had been aware that Nana had been sick. So without going into a lot of detail, we explained that Nana had died – she was no longer here with us – and that her soul was in heaven, a place where our souls live on after we leave this life. At this point you might be wondering if we took our little ones to the funeral. Clearly there’s no right answer because it’s just what you feel most comfortable with. We did bring them (and to my father-in-law’s the following year) and it ended up being a good choice for us. Mia and Ben were not overwhelmed as I’d worried they might be and they were a great source of comfort to us and the rest of the family. I feel like this experience helped them begin to understand that death is a part of life and that it’s ok and normal to be very sad. And saying goodbye doesn’t mean that we stop sharing stories or talking about our loved one…people at the funeral and afterward at the house had lots of stories and thoughts to share 😍.  

Mia (while still 5) was the first to start asking questions. “Why did Nana die?” That one got a simple but honest answer explaining that Nana had been fighting cancer and was weak and had gotten a serious infection that the doctors couldn’t cure. The most heart-touching conversation was one she had with my dad – her Papa – one night when he was babysitting. “Do you ever talk to Nana?” she asked him. “Yes often,” he answered. “Out loud or in your head?” she wisely questioned. “Sometimes out loud and sometimes in my head, but it doesn’t matter because either way Nana can hear me.” (Papa) “Does Nana talk back to you?” (Mia) My dad smiled and didn’t miss a beat. He explained that Nana did talk to him and that he could “hear” her in his thoughts and feel her with his heart.   


My father-in-law (Tata) passed away the morning after he and my mother-in-law had babysat for Mia and Ben. Ironically, David and I had gone to a benefit for the Cancer Wellness Center (in memory and support of my mom) with my dad. So both kids had just spent lots of quality time with Tata and had to somehow process the very next morning that he was no longer with us. It felt so surreal to us and didn’t even feel real. We were straightforward and just the basics and let them know that we, too, were shocked and sad. Being honest and open about our feelings helped them to feel ok being open about theirs. To this day Mia remembers sitting on our kitchen floor with me and hearing David tell her “Tata has died.” Since Mia was 6 ½ and Ben was almost 4, and this was the second time they were faced with the death of a grandparent, both were much more aware of what was going on. Mia, especially, had been very close to her Tata and felt this loss deeply. We talked openly and often about him, as we did about my mom, because we loved – LOVE — them and wanted to keep them a part of our lives. But also because we wanted to convey our belief that death is not the end. That their grandparents’ souls were continuing on in another place that we can’t see, but that we can FEEL in our hearts. And as was evident from my dad’s and Mia’s conversation, we can also “hear” them if we really listen. Just as she did with my dad a year prior, Mia asked me if I ever talked with Tata. I said yes, and shared that both he and Nana visited me in my dreams occasionally. She then shared that she talked with Tata, too, and that he had told her he loved her. I realize some parents would brush this stuff off, or tell them that this was just their imagination. But we felt strongly about supporting them, partly because it’s important to validate other’s thoughts and feelings, and partly because our beliefs support what they were experiencing – our loved ones being able to connect with us in some way even after they have died.  

As the years went on we continued to share memories and pictures and stories of Nana and Tata. The questions that came up from our kids became more sophisticated and deep. We always answered openly and honestly and even ventured into deep discussions when the question led us there. I’m grateful that we were able to help our kids develop a healthy attitude about life and death, and to know that they can talk to us about absolutely anything. We received an unexpected blessing – experiencing all this through the eyes, hearts and souls of our children helped each of us as we grieved and healed and pushed us to grow as parents and as humans. 

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