How To Explain Terminal Illness To Our Grandchildren

By Natalie Taylor-Hayes | Monday Monday Staff -    2018-03-23

We wish we could always speak of birthdays, sleepovers, and ice cream cones but that’s not reality when a loved one has a terminal illness. At some point, our grandkids must be told. How do we do that? 

explaining terminal illness to our grandkids

I watched as a friend’s grandchild lost his grandfather. He seemed very brave for five years old, but the fact was that he didn’t understand. A few years later, when he was looking through family photos, taken at the funeral home, he laid his head on the couch and cried hard for hours.

However, it wasn’t all tears. It was deep anguish expressed with clenched fists, yelling and kicking. He seemed to fight an invisible foe and knew in the end, he would lose.

Explaining terminal illness to a youngster may seem futile since they aren’t able to digest the concept. However, they will move through the experience able or not. That’s when coaching, bit by bit, might be the best approach.

Consider each stage. Answer the child’s question with the short answer. If they ask for more, give the next short answer. 

  • Explain that grandma, grandpa, or whoever the case may be, is very sick. 
  • Tell them there are many kinds of sickness. Some go away fast but this kind is bad and won’t go away.
  • They may compare it to the last time they or another family member was ill. Explain that those sicknesses were the easy kind but the one your loved one has is a hard one.
  • When the time is right, tell them the hard type of illness, that doesn’t go away, is going to take the person from the family.
  • Simply and briefly, explain your family’s religious beliefs about life after death.
  • The child who doesn’t understand may not respond much but the one that grasps may cry, become fearful or express anger. 

Handling the array of emotions

explaining terminal illness to our grandkids

Sometimes, a child becomes fearful for their own lives or those of other loved ones. Be sure to explain that the “hard kind of illness” is confined to the particular loved one being discussed. 

If they act out in anger, be patient. Allow them to express their grief. As long as they will not be hurting themselves or someone else, you may allow them to punch their pillows or throw their stuffed animals for a set time. This is how my friend’s son processed his anger with his mom and dad on hand.

If their grief causes them nightmares, stomach or headaches or other physical symptoms, you may suggest that they see their pediatrician or a counselor. 

Explaining terminal illness is hard for everyone. Keep everyone close and work together. 

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