Dying Grandparents

Updated on September 19, 2011
E.M. asks from Austin, TX
13 answers

My mother in law is quite ill. She was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While there's still hope that she'll respond to the chemo, things are not looking good right now.
Our children are six and three and half.
I have so many questions about how to handle this. When she does pass, I'm wondering how to tell them and whether or not to bring them to the funeral. It never occurred to me that we wouldn't bring them, except my husband brought up that possibility. I never went to any funerals when I was young, but he did and remembers it just being very confusing.
Because her illness has come on so suddenly, the last time they saw her, she was in relatively good shape. We can't bring them to see her now, when she is sick, because her immune system is compromised. I feel like if they could see her ill, maybe that would help the transition, but I know in their minds, she's still the vibrant, active woman she's always been.
I know there is no "right" way to handle this, but I'd love to hear how other people have broached death and funerals with their children.
Thank you in advance.

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So What Happened?

I can not express how much comforting reading everyone's response has brought me. The support this group has provided is invaluable. I think I needed the reminder than many families have been through this and many children lose close relatives. Knowing how others have handled it makes me feel so much more prepared.
She passed late last night and while our grief is profound, at least I've already thought about what I want to tell the kids and how I want to approach it.
We've decided to bring them with us and to let them attend the services. We will let them decide whether or not to approach the body. I loved the idea of there being part of the funeral geared toward them and will speak to my sister-in-law (who attends the same church my mil attended) about that possibility.
Thank you again to all the men and women of the mamapedia community!

Featured Answers


answers from Kalamazoo on

Maybe you can scype/webcam visit with her?
I would take them. It might be a little confusing for them, but it will help them understand that she is gone, let them say goodbye.
And most importantly, they will put some smiles on peoples faces who need something to feel happy about that day.......

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answers from Houston on

First, I am so sorry for your situation, it is never easy,

Explain it to them in simple terms but they need to know their grandmother will be going to heaven (or whatever your belief) and that while they will not be able to see her anymore she will be watching over them and always in their hearts and memories. Death is a part of life, and the sooner they can be exposed to it the better it will be for them to process later in life. I have lost all 4 grandparents, a father, an uncle, and several friends. While it is very sad, my outlook on death as a part of life and being difficult for those left behind, but not the ones gone, makes it easier to process and accept.

For what it is worth, when my granmother died when I was 9 I was not allowed to go to the funeral since my father thought it would be too hard on me. I still remember that I wasn't allowed to go, which I think is worse than the alternative would have been for me. Your children should be allowed to say goodbye just like everyone else, regardless of age. Good luck to you.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

My dearest Nana died when my son was 18 months and he REMEMBERS seeing her "in that box", as he put it. He is 6, almost 7 and still has a vivid memory. My uncle had a sudden death/self induced 4 days before Christmas last year. He was cremated, but we talked about it alot. My son had a ton of questions about dying and I gave his simple answers. In a nutshell, I told him that there comes a time in life when you go to heaven, and it usually happens when you're very old, however sometimes people get very sick and die sooner. Heaven is a wonderful place to enjoy after you have lived a FULL life. My 3 1/2 yr old daughter knows that her old Nana and Uncle T are in heaven because they died. Just yesterday she asked me if my mom/Grandma B died because she hasn't seen her in a long time. I told her NO...she lives far, but we can call and talk to her...poor baby :)

1 mom found this helpful


answers from New York on

I'm sorry you're in this situation. My daughter just turned 12. Unfortunately, we have had several family members pass away in recent years. The first was when she was about 7 or 8. It was my cousin's husband who died from brain cancer. Although we didn't see him when he was sick (he went relatively quickly), my daughter saw him at least once or twice a year and knew him well. We debated about taking her to the wake/funeral. A friend who had lost her parents advised taking her so that she could experience a wake/funeral BEFORE she had to deal with the loss of grandparents. I have to admit, we are Christians and had many conversations with her about death before. She was not afraid to go to the wake. There were lots of people and she was fine. We talked about it afterwards as well. She understood that she was only seeing the person's body and that his soul was in heaven with the Lord. She was OK with all of this and never gave us a reason to think it scared her in any way.
A few years later, her great-grandmother passed away at 96. She came to the wake with us and was OK with it as well (her experiences were adding up and getting her used to the fact that this is part of life). Last year, my father in law passed away after a 5 year battle with cancer. We were with him very often along the way and at the end. We made sure to keep the visits short for her (my husband's visits were much longer). When he died, we were all sad, but she handled everything beautifully. She knows he's with the Lord and we'll see him again. She has several cousins on my husband's side who had never been brought to wakes before their grandfather passed away. 11 year old,, 18 yr old, 23 & 24 yr olds - none of them could handle it. None of them knew how to act or what to do. I'm so glad that our daughter has accepted that death is a part of life. I'm so glad that my friend advised us to bring her to that first wake. It's never fun, but at least it's not scary. Avoiding something makes it scary. Doing it is never as scary as you THINK it's going to be. I know lots of adults who don't know how to attend a wake and that's a shame. Best of luck.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

Although I've never had to face this with my own kids, right now I'm against bringing kids to see visibly sick family members. I would rather have the kids remember the active vibrant grandma, than sick grandma. My sister didn't allow her kids to see our grandmother when she was very sick and it's been over 3 years since her death and my sister doesn't regret her decision. She talked to them about her being sick and that she was getting ready to go to heaven, but they didn't see her. They were sad when she passed, but they always talk about her with such joy and don't know about how she was in the end. Her kids were 5 1/2 and 4 1/2 at the time. On the opposite side when my FIL was dying, my BIL let his daughter in the room all the time, even after he was suffering from severe dementia and was so sick and swollen that he didn't even look like himself. She was 6 and that is all she talked about was how sick Grandpa was. I never once heard her tell of a good time with grandpa. She was consumed with sick grandpa. I may change my mind when the time comes with my own kids, but right now, I want my kids to have all happy memories of grandma and grandpa, they will have plenty of time to deal with the visible reality of death when they are older.



answers from Austin on

We just lost our sister-in-law, Lynette, to cancer after a long battle. I am so sorry for this difficult time for you. My nephew who is 3 was not taken to see Lynette at the end. It would not be a good memory for him. But he did get to see her a month before when she was very frail but still conscious and looked a little like herself. He came to the viewing since they were able to prepare her body so beautifully. They let him ask questions and decide if he wanted to go up closer. My niece's son who is 4 chose not to go up close and that was fine. I love how they were very open and natural about it all and let the kids decide how close they wanted to be. Each child is different. Both went to the funeral and it was mostly over their heads so they were just kept occupied with quiet toys like they do in regular church services. The burial brought more questions but they were all answered very calmly and in the best way a young child could understand.

Are you and your husband very clear and in agreement on what happens after death? Do you have peace about it all? If so, it would make it easier to answer all of your kids' questions. Do your kids normally attend church services? If not, bring quiet toys they haven't seen before or in a while so they can be distracted.

If you are not at peace, the books, "90 Minutes in Heaven" and "Heaven is For Real" are two very well-written books out there that are bringing a lot of peace to those of us who have lost loved ones.



answers from Austin on

My grandmother passed away when my kids were 6 and 3. At first, I didn't want to take them to the funeral or visitation; however, my mom encouraged me to bring them. I don't have the quietest/shyest of children and I thought it would be inappropriate for them to be there. I was nervous about how they would behave as well. Looking back on it, I am SOOOO glad they were included in the process. They were able to visit with my grandmother before she passed (she didn't look great and was hard to understand). I would have been creeped out by it as a child, quite frankly. They are not scared of elderly with dementia, etc.I think exposing them at a young age will help them cope with such sad and uncomfortable situations in their future. If at all possible, see if they can see each other one last time. For your MIL's sake too. Poor thing. Could you imagine how it feels to know your life will not go on as long as you had hoped and never be able to say goodbye to your grandchildren. It's a horrible thought but happens to many people everyday. Could you maybe purchase a webcam for yourselves and your in-laws? That way, she can see the kids from a safe distance. I'm sorry your family is going through this.



answers from Washington DC on

I am so sorry to hear of your situation. I hate issues of death and talking to my kids so I sympathize with your uncertainties. As background, three of my grandparents died when I was between 3 and 10, I went to the hospital to visit near the end and to 2 wakes and 2 funerals - and I do remember these. In honesty, it is some of my clearest memories, which may sound sad, but it also makes me feel connected to my grandparents because I remember being sad and missing them.

I think it is very important to let your kids be involved when she passess away. I think participating with the family at the wakes and funerals is very important as a mechanism as closure and to experience their grief in complete way. I am very resentful that I did not attend my one grandparent's funeral and remember very clearly wanting to go.

I think it is up to YOU to make it not confusing. I think you need to send a clear message that not everyone who gets ill, dies. They should not be scared of being sick. However, I think seeing her ill will give them a chance to prepare a bit and acknowledge "something is wrong." I don't think I would tell them she is dying, since that could be scary and anxiety ridden, but I think they should visit with her and make their "goodbyes" even if they don't know it is goodbye. Maybe you can have them make pictures or take photos or do an activity with their grandmother that they will be able to remember as a particularly nice time with her. When she does pass, I think you need to invite them to attend the wake and funeral, and speak honestly to them about your beliefs (heaven, funeral as a cvelebration of life and a way to say goodbye, etc.) and expain in simple terms what to expect at each. Honesty is the best policy in my perspective. If you do all this, and the child doesn't want to go, then I would not force it. But I would encourage it, so they don't regret it.



answers from San Antonio on

My daughter lost 3 great grandparents when she was very young. Taking her to the funeral depended on childcare. A lot of great grandchildren did come. As to whether the child should come for his or her own benefit really depends on the child. Your 6-year-old may need the closure and may remember not being allowed to go. My kids are 6 and 3 now. My son wasn't around yet for the funerals, and my daughter wasn't paying too much attention. Right now, I would bring my 6-year-old and not my 3-year-old if I had childcare. My 6-year-old doesn't miss a beat, but everyone is different. Starting at age 4, I think I'd choose to bring her, but she came to at least 2 other ones because of the childcare issue.



answers from Austin on

I believe that presentation is everything. It's not whether or not you should/could tell your children but how you tell them. When my 6 year old son asks me questions that involve serious situations, such as major illness/death/sex/etc., I take a deep breath and then I ask him to tell me what HE thinks the answer is. This not only gives me insight into what his knowledge might be on the subject but also buys me a little time to come up with how to respond.
When there is no question but rather an informative discussion, you would sit the child down (both of you sitting), making sure you are both in a relaxed environment. Sometimes, when my child is ready go to sleep at night, I'll lie across his bed too and together we chat about this and that. I know he's very comfortable and reassured that mom's there, and there's nothing he doesn't feel comfortable saying to me or asking me. Sometimes I act just as curious as he does about a topic and "together" we "figure it out" with me gently and subttley guiding him to the answer(s). I basically treat him the way I would want to be treated when I was hs age.



answers from Chicago on

I know things are very unpredictable right now, but when/if you get some grasp of a timeline for her, like how long she will be receiving chemo, any predictions on time left, etc, that may influence your decision. If she will be living for a year it might be hard (and cruel) to keep your kids from seeing her for so long, and keep her from seeing the kids. I bet they would bring her much joy in these hard times. I understand the compromised immune issue, but as another mom suggested, maybe skype, or scheduling visits when she can handle them. Keep them short and be sure to practice obsessive hygiene. Her deteriorating condition may actually help them accept her death. They will see how sick and weak she is, and may better understand why her body was no longer able to go on. Obviously use your judgement, if things get extreme it may not be good for them or her. Then continue to talk to them about her and send cards/pictures to keep her spirits up. My FIL passed away suddenly from a heart attack a little over a year ago. The kids had just spent the weekend with him at his daughter's (my SIL) wedding, then 4 days later we had to tell them he was gone. I am not sure that is any easier on them. He was just fine one day and gone the next, I think it could create more fear in younger kids that this could happen to anyone at anytime. And while we unfortunately know that is true, we of course don't want our kids worrying if we will be there when they wake up in the morning.
As far as the funeral, I took our kids (at the time they were 8,6, and 3, and I was very pregnant with #4). We talked extensively about what to expect, that it was just any empty body in the casket and his soul was in heaven already. They knew they had the option of seeing him or not. The older ones went up and saw, and even touched him, they left notes in his casket. I think it was healing for them and gave them a sense of closure and finality. I also think it helped for them to see us grieve and mourn, and then "recover" from that grief in the weeks to come. It is a natural part of life and we do not see a reason to overly shield them from it. As I am writing this I asked my daughter (then 6) if she was glad she went to the funeral, and she said yes. She could not think of any negative feelings about it, other than the obvious loss of her grandpa.
Every family and situation is different, but I would encourage you to take this as an opportunity to teach your children about the natural cycle of life and go though this difficult time together as a family. I wish you all peace and comfort in the days ahead.



answers from Dallas on

I haven't had to handle this yet, but I would hit the library and see what books they might have - for your age and for their ages - to help you. The hospital may also have some resources as well, and perhaps your church as well.


answers from La Crosse on

my kids were about 8,6,5. When my grandma passed away. I didn't have any of them go to the wake or the funeral. I did talk to them about her being in heaven.

Then three years ago my other grandma passed away. My oldest was with us when we went down to see her before she passed. I thought he could handle it being he was 12. It was VERY hard on him. I truly wish I wouldn't have let him see her that way and let him have had the memories of her before she got sick. Due to an ice storm hitting while we were there we couldn't get home ( 6 hours away) to get the other two. To this day he said when he thinks of grandma the first imagine of her he thinks about is when she was sick and still has a very hard time with it.

3 months after my grandma passed my grandpa passed away. All of the boys were there for that. It was still hard for them to grasp what was going on for the younger two. They were 7 & 8. I allowed them to go to the wake but not the funeral. For the wake we never let them go up to pops, but let them see him from a distant.. that was enough for them. They were able to see all of the family but spent most of the time in the childrens room. The funeral director was awesome! He had a little "service" for the children, he explained death, the soul leaving the body and joining God using puppets. It was so neat how he did it. And it did help the children doing it in a way they understood.

Good luck to your family in this hard time!

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