I grew up with only one living grandparent, who was always quite elderly and frail; the other three had all passed before I was born. Today, my children are blessed to have three doting grandparents in their lives. But just during their lifetimes, they’ve watched their grandparents battle cancer, heart conditions requiring surgery, joint replacements, and other serious health issues. This means we’ve had to have conversations with them that my parents never needed to have with me: namely, conversations about their grandparents’ aging.
When you have your first baby, life is an adventure for you, your parents, and everyone involved. When your second child comes along, your firstborn may start to ask questions about the big things in life. Maybe it’s that new sibling that gets them thinking about bigger life- and-death issues. Or maybe it’s the loss of a pet. Or maybe it’s watching a grandparent go through a very serious illness.
Whatever prompts the conversation, the time will come when your children’s grandparents aren’t able to play with your children like they once did. This can be confusing and upsetting for a young child. Even more upsetting is when grandparents aren’t able to look after themselves anymore, need to go into a home or assisted living, and eventually pass away.
All of these hurdles can be hard enough for grownups to process and handle. But when we have children who want to know what’s going on and why these things are happening, what should we do? What is the best way for parents to teach our children about these difficult facts of life?
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How To Talk To Your Kids About Grandparents’ Aging
Picking The Right Time
There is never a “good time”, but there may be a time when you can’t paper over such information anymore. For example, your parent (their grandparent) may have landed in the hospital one too many times. Or your children have noticed that you aren’t being your normal self.
Especially if your kids are younger, or their ailing grandparent is far away, you may find yourself trying to put off these difficult conversations for as long as possible. The truth is, there is no such thing as “the right time.”
While you don’t need to go into great detail about every possible thing that’s going wrong with your parent’s health, your children ARE going to know that something’s up. So the best policy is to be honest, rather than trying to hide the truth from your kids.
Starting A Conversation
In other words, avoid the temptation to sugarcoat the information too much. When you begin this conversation, you have to encourage openness and honesty. Once you’ve introduced the topic that their grandparent is not well, though, try to let your children’s questions guide the conversation. This will help you balance giving them the answers they need against giving them more info than they can handle.
At the same time, though, you need to emphasize to your children that what’s going on with their grandparent has nothing to do with them. If your children are used to seeing their grandparents regularly but have been seeing a lot less of them lately, your kids may wonder if they did something wrong.
Reassure your child that Grandma/Grandpa loves them as much as ever, but Grandma/Grandpa’s changing health means that they may not be able to do the same things with their grandkids as they could before. It’s important to help your kids understand what is going on. It’s also important to stress that they CAN still have a relationship with Grandma/Grandpa, just in a different way.
For example, maybe your child was used to having your grandparents pick them up and carry them around, but your aging parent can’t do this anymore. perhaps your kids can still sit on Grandma or Grandpa’s lap and snuggle with them. Keep the lines of communication open, and be sure to discuss these changes with your child well in advance, so they’re prepared when they see their grandparent again.
Helping Them Cope With The Big Changes
Explaining to your kids what’s going on and how it affects them is one thing. But it’s also important to help them come to terms with big changes.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy, though. After all, you yourself are trying to process these changes in how well your parent is managing day-to-day life. Sometimes, it’s only when we have to explain these things to our own children that they can really hit home for us. It’s OK to admit to your child (within reason) that you’re also sad about the changes that come with their grandparents’ aging.
Actively involving your child in the process can help you all adjust to the changes around you. I remember when our adopted grandmother (my mama’s godmother) became so frail that she could no longer manage her own housekeeping, and our mama had to take over. My brother and I went along with our mama to help clean Auntie’s house each week, and it made us feel good to know that we were helping our beloved Auntie out in this small way.
Likewise, if you’re facing the difficult decision of relocating your parent to a retirement home or assisted-living facility, your children can be involved in the process. Older children can help you research communities like McKnight online. Younger children can visit possible options with you. If your child is close to their grandparents, giving them these small “jobs” can help them come to grips with the reality of the situation. And getting them involved in the process will help them feel as if they’re helping to care for the grandparent who’s long cared for them.
Helping Them Process The Information
How your kids process this information will depend a lot on their ages and personalities. Some will be confused, some will understand what’s going on right away, and others may not even notice. It’s important to give them the time and space to process what’s going on, but balance that against the temptation to shield them completely from the new reality.
No, you may not want your child to see your parent in decline. But which is worse – letting your child visit your grandparent in the hospital, or risking that your child may miss out on getting to see their grandparent one last time? Would you rather have your child watch your parent slowly decline, or hold off on visiting until your parent is in a care home where they may not recognize their own grandchildren?
Hard though it may be to keep your kids informed of their grandparents’ aging and declining health. Deep down, you’re better off telling your kids the truth than you are lying to them, or sugarcoating things too much out of a desire to protect them. The last thing you want is for your child to look back someday and realize that you were, in effect, lying to them, as this may cause a rift between the two of you.
Ensuring They Have Empathy
On the other hand, some kids could appear insensitive or even hostile as they try to process what’s going on. Remember that any insensitivity. anger, or feigned indifference you see could actually be a coping mechanism.
When kids balk at visiting their grandparents in a home, acknowledge that they may be frightened. Refusing to talk to you about what they’re thinking and feeling? Maybe they are locking up, emotionally, because they can see that YOU are struggling, and they don’t have to burden you with their anxieties.
This is why it’s important for you to go through this together. Encouraging empathy and respect isn’t just for the sake of your children; it may help them to establish a better bond with their grandparents. So help them to find new ways to interact with their grandparents. For example, if your parent’s eyesight is too weak for them to read stories to your children anymore, encourage your child to read to their grandparents. Maybe your parent can’t bake treats for when the grandkids visit anymore; perhaps you and your child can bake treats to . bring over instead.
You need to teach your kids ongoing respect and empathy for your aging parents not just on general principle, but because it will make all of you stronger as a family. Encouraging your children to be more considerate may make you realize how much you took your parents for granted.
Teaching Your Child To Grieve
We all die eventually, and there is never a good time to lose a grandparent. When a grandparent dies, whether it was unexpected or after a long decline, this might well be the first time your children have encountered mortality.
Some parents think that the best approach is to explain all about death and what happens. This could backfire on you. We don’t want our children to go through life feeling scared, but at the same time, we need to give them the information about the facts of life so that they can process it in their own time.
When our parents pass away, and our children are old enough to fully comprehend what’s going on, we could feel protective over our children’s emotions. But what’s important at this juncture is for everyone to grieve. Doing this as a family, believe it or not, could strengthen your unit.
And oddly enough, when we encounter the passing of our parents, it can bring everything into focus, and result in many positive outcomes. Maybe we realize we have taken life too seriously? But when we see it through the eyes of a child, whose experiences haven’t been worn by cynicism and conflict, we can realize that our children have it right. There are so many things that aren’t important in life.
Sitting down with our children and to discuss death isn’t easy, but it brings into focus what’s really important. This difficult conversation may well be one that actually strengthens your bond with your children.
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