4 Ways to Help Your Child Grieve the Loss of a Grandparent
- Jaime Jo Wright Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 1 Jul
The loss of a grandparent can be a life-changing event for a child. Often, because children appear to be so resilient, they get lost in the shuffle of grief. The immediate loss, the planning for the funeral, the chaos of friends and family, and the settling of estates become adult ways to process through the initial firsts of grief. In the corner, watching, are our children. They digest every tear, even as they play and laugh and seem unaffected.
It is critical that, as parents, your children are given priority during this journey of grief. Mainly because their perspective of eternity is being crafted during this time, and you have an opportunity to help form their opinions and beliefs on what happens after we die. If your children are especially close to your parents, this is even more critical, as they will have lost not only a grandparent but likely a playmate, a soulmate, a best friend, or even a parental figure they may relate to more than they do to you.
My family recently experienced the loss of my mom, and she was, for all sakes and purposes, more than a grandmother; she truly was a mother. She was their primary caregiver until they reached school age, as my husband and I both had full-time jobs. She was my daughter’s best friend, and she was my son’s security blanket in life. The unexpected diagnosis of cancer and the fast decline—two weeks—was shocking to their senses and emotions. Within days, they went from playing and roughhousing with Nanny to standing in the church in a visitation line with pictures as their only remaining connection to her.
So how do we help our kids process their grief when a grandparent moves to heaven?
Your child’s sorrow must be validated as real and legitimate. Unfortunately, often their grief will erupt at bedtime—when you’re the most tired and worn yourself. This happens because children can compartmentalize their grief with the distraction of playing, daytime activity, etc. At bedtime, grief becomes especially raw. Snapping at your child that “now isn’t the time” or “you need to go to sleep” will only pour verbal alcohol on their open wound. Granted, you will have to reason through with them because sleep is important, after all. But regardless of the time of day, validation will be critical to give them the confidence to grieve. If they fear criticism or judgment, they will bottle up their emotions and consider themselves falling short of expectations. This can affect them long into adulthood. Simple validation can be an “I understand,” “I feel that way too,” “it’s okay to feel this way.”
2. Avoid Preaching
Take the age of your child into consideration, of course, but most children under the age of thirteen will struggle exponentially with the idea of heaven. Launching into a long dissertation on the hope of eternity, the security of salvation through Jesus, and so on, while true, might serve to cloud their grief even further as they try to grasp concepts that aren’t tangible. Faith is already difficult for a child to grasp conceptually, so at this point, putting the reality of eternity into simple terms will help them find hope. Take them on an imaginary journey of heaven, applying what you know to be true from Scripture, and letting them embellish with their hopes and wonderment.
What is our grandparent’s mansion going to look like? If you could help Jesus build your mansion, what would you want Him to put in it? What do you think the grandparent is doing right now in heaven? Who are they most excited to see/meet?
Questions like these will engage their senses, redirect thoughts from grief to anticipation, and begin to help them grasp the concepts of hope in eternity and that death does not equal an end.
3. Allow for the Tangible
There are various ways of processing grief, and one of them, especially with children, is to grasp the tangible. Something to feel, hold, smell. Let’s be honest, even as adults, we tend to tour the closet of the one who’s passed, wrap ourselves in one of their blankets, or, if we’re not as sensory, maybe study photographs or read old letters or texts and listen to voicemails. Your children need this opportunity also.
A few ideas were given to me to help my children process the loss of Nanny while also having something to comfort themselves; one idea was to make a pillow out of one of her shirts, allowing them to choose an item from her belongings that means something to them, or framing a photograph for them to have in their bedroom. My children were blessed in that, though she passed quickly, Nanny was thinking ahead, and she made sure she gave them her favorite stuffed lambs. They both sleep with them now, but my sentimental son also has a framed picture of Nanny in his loft bed, and we’ve allowed him to have one of her shirts to snuggle with. My mom always left “invisible kisses” for the kids to “find” after she’d gone home for the day, so my son assures himself she’s left them for him on her shirt for as long as he needs.
4. Affirm Self-Comfort
While concepts like “invisible kisses” may seem like an emotional crutch to some, the healthy part of it becomes the fact that in a relatively short time, my son has been able to self-comfort. The truth behind these kisses is legitimate. Nanny did leave them in the past (I saw her blow them around myself). Knowing that a reminder of her devoted and passionate Nanny-bear love is with him allows my son to be comforted in a familiar way that continues the legacy of Nanny while also putting a period at the end of his grief moment.
This means when a child discovers a way to soothe themselves, as long as there are no destructive qualities, be sure to affirm this. While grief is important to process, it is also vital the child learns to exit it and continue to live outside of the perpetual chasm of sadness. Too much coddling or smothering can result in an unhealthy co-dependency on you to filter their grief with and for them. The healthiest thing is for your child to learn how to process grief in a self-prompted way that is beneficial for their emotional growth. This enables them to increase their mental, emotional, and spiritual health while becoming independent in their faith.
There is no one right way to navigate grief with your children. The loss of a grandparent often marks a turning point in their growing-up years. It becomes one of those pivotal, stark moments that embed into their memories. The important thing, specifically in the loss of a grandparent who is devoted in their faith, is to reaffirm the reality of hope that comes from a belief in Christ.
Heaven should be talked of as very real. The reuniting of us with our loved ones should be addressed as another great event to look forward to someday. The discussion about the grandparent still being in existence and alive—just in another place—creates a reality that Jesus truly did defeat the grave! As parents, this is your opportunity to example the hope that comes in a life planted firmly in the Lord. Grief need not be a desperate loss, a wailing heartbreak with no hope, and a depressive, dark place. Grief can be an expectation for the future while missing the current absence. It can be a heartbreak of missing—a homesickness per se. It can be a place of light, hope, and joy. Helping your children see the truth of eternity in your grieving process will ultimately be the best way of helping them travel through their own sadness. They will take their cues from you, as the parent, as to the direness of the situation. If your example is one of despair, this will communicate to them that they too should despair in death, and their own healing process will be handicapped by these brutal emotions that aren’t filtered through in a way that shows them the light of hope.
In the end, grief is a difficult place, but an inevitable one we will all visit one day. A grandparent, unfortunately, is often the introduction to this place for our children. But handled well, it can become a place of genuine faith that can catapult your child’s faith journey forward. When eternity becomes real, this world becomes less vital, and your child will begin to cast their eyes on Jesus. The Author and the Finisher of their faith. Remember, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. You can assure your child that their grandparent is cheering them on in their faith walk and will be right there, ready to help them cross the finish line, with their turn comes. In that, there is also great comfort.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Rawpixel
Jaime Jo Wright is the winner of the Carol, Daphne du Maurier, and INSPY Awards. She's also the Publishers Weekly and ECPA bestselling author of three novellas. The Christy Award-Winning author of “The House on Foster Hill”, Jaime Jo Wright resides in the hills of Wisconsin writing suspenseful mysteries stained with history's secrets. Jaime lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at jaimewrightbooks.com!