My husband Josh’s grandmother recently passed away.
She had been sick in recent months, but her passing was still relatively sudden. It was hard and painful for a variety of reasons. We were lucky to have had the chance to say goodbye and tell her how much we loved her one last time hours before her passing.
Gail McLeod was an amazing and beautiful woman. She was kind and gentle. I was blessed to have known her and be loved by her. She treated me just like one of her own grandchildren since I came into the family. My children were lucky to get to know their Great-Grandmother, adore her, and be adored by her. They loved her and she loved them back even harder.
The hardest part of her loss was knowing that while our hearts were broken we were going to have to break the hearts of our children by telling them that she was no longer with us.
And we had absolutely no idea how to do that.
I was lucky enough not to lose someone close to me until I was 25 years old. My parents never had to sit me down and tell me that a loved one had passed. I can remember going to funerals for older relatives and distant cousins while growing up and feeling like I should be sad because the grown-ups were sad. But, I did not experience that heartbreaking pain myself until well into adulthood.
My husband lost his Papa when he was 10 years old. It came after a long and lengthy illness. He was well aware of what was happening while it was happening. No one really ever had to sit him and break the news to him.
As we drove from the assisted living facility the evening before Grandma passed, Josh and I discussed how on Earth we were going to handle this conversation ahead of us.
We came up with a plan around how the discussion would go. We talked through it ourselves and figured out how we would start and direct the conversation. The following is what worked for us.
Know your audience.
We have four kids of various ages and maturity levels. The way my ten-year-old processes things is much different from the way my five-year-old does. Our way of talking about Grandma’s passing was adjusted based on which child(ren) we were talking with. It was important that we were prepared to explain death in a way that they could understand. We were able to go into more detail with our older children while we kept it incredibly simple with our younger ones.
Death and grief aren’t things we could be direct and to the point with. They are hard topics to discuss. The concept of loss is a hard one to process. We had to ease our way into delivering the news. It was important that we didn’t devastate them right out of the gate or deliver the news in too harsh of a manner.
Let them ask questions.
Once it was out there, we asked all of our kids if they had any questions for us. Some of them we expected like “Where is Heaven?” and “Will we ever see her again?” Some of them we didn’t like the more technical questions about what actually happens when you die.
We did our best to be honest with our children and answer their questions the best that we could. But we also were not afraid to tell them when we didn’t have the answers to their questions.
Just be there for them.
We let our children talk all that they wanted to about their Great-Grandma and what her not being with us anymore meant. We allowed them to express their feelings, reassured them how much they were loved and how love is something that never ends– not even in death.
Once we did all that, we sat with them in their grief. We gave them a safe space to cry and we cried along with them. I held my seven-year-old as she cried herself to sleep. That is what she needed and in that particular moment, I needed it too.
Check-in on them.
I learned my oldest is really good at masking her feelings. She told me she was doing okay and I took her at her word. A phone call from the counselor at school told me otherwise. Grief is strange and it hits in some of the most unexpected ways. My daughter experienced this and I learned that I needed to be better about getting her to talk to me about her feelings.
In the end, you have to do what works for you and your children.
There is no parenting manual that tells you how to handle life or moments like breaking hard news to your children. I can almost guarantee no matter how well prepared you think you are to have to deliver news like the loss of a loved one your heart will break right along with your child(ren)’s.