How Do I Prepare Kids for Imminent Death of Grandma?

Updated on December 09, 2009
N.D. asks from Vancouver, WA
21 answers

my MIL, who has stage 4 breast cancer, has suddenly taken a turn for the worse. just yesterday, she could walk and now she can barely do so. she quit taking hormone therapy (as it didn't appear to be doing anything but maybe it was) and she won't do chemo or radiation so it doesn't seem that she has long left. my girls will see her for the first time in a wheelchair tomorrow. i already know that we will tell them that she is sick but do we tell them that she's dying so they care prepare themselves or is that just cruel? i don't know if it would help them or hurt them more to know ahead of time. my daughters are 7 and almost 5. they spend a lot of time with her as she lives nearby so it will be a heartbreaking loss for them, with daily reminders of her as we'll drive by her house every day. i have no experience with death as a child so i'm wondering how best to deal with this. any advice? thank you so much.

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So What Happened?

thank you so much to everyone for their kind and thoughtful advice. i'm sure you hear it all the time, but you guys are an awesome bunch of moms!

we're going to take a more gradual approach, answering their questions as they come up. i don't want to cause them heartache by giving them the knowledge that she's dying just yet, since we're not *that* close to that point. we explained that grandma's leg isn't working, that's why she's in the wheelchair. my MIL is going for radiation soon so i'm sure that will elicit more questions. thank you all again :)

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answers from Seattle on

Be honest with them. You don't need to give full details, but answer their questions. IF they don't know that grandma is sick then start with that.
A good book for children dealing with death and grief is "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf"

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answers from Seattle on

What you tell them depends on what they ask and what your faith life is or isn't. My kids were 8, 6 and 3 when my Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and he was terminal. My kids needed to know why I was so sad and crying in the beginning. I had to tell them what was happening, there was no hiding it, as they were/are very intuitive. My Mom had just gone thru a mastectomy earlier that year and chemotherapy, so they understood cancer and chemo (she is a 15 year survivor now!) I did not tell my kids up front that Poppa was dying, but that he was very sick. When he ended up in intensive care within a week of diagnosis because he threw blood clots on his lungs due to his chemo, then I told them that he may go to Heaven, that would be the only place that he go and get well. He survived those clots and lived another 9 months. He was admitted to the hospital one other time and each time the kids were aware of what was going on, even the youngest. Dad lived at home, with the help of hospice. He played with the kids, was wheel chair bound, but read to them, told them stories, squirted them with the soaker squirt gun that summer, they took naps with him on his electric bed in the living room. We took a break that summer as things were getting intense, hospice said we had about another 3-4 wks, and I wanted the summer to be good one, not focused on illness but the fun of life with Poppa and themselves, so we took a trip to Disneyland. The night before we left, the kids and I went down to say good bye and to reassure my Dad I could get home in 3 hrs, not a problem. He was quite sleepy, the disease was progressing, and as we left each one of the kids, on their own, went up and kissed Poppa's head and told him bye-bye they'd see him in Heaven. My Dad died our last night in Disneyland. We got the call and the fireworks were going off overhead and the kids jumped up and down on the beds, running all around and screamed "yeah!! Poppa's in Heaven, he doesn't hurt anymore, he's all better!" 4 yrs ago, my sister-in-law suffered a seizure disorder and died, my niece who was 6 found her in bed, barely responsive, called 911 and my brother who is a fishing guide and happened to be coming in with a boat of clients. They were able to get her to the hospital, but she was put on life support until my 10 yr old nephew was visiting us and we had to get him home (5 hr flight). When we got there, my brother was explaining to his kids that the angels were playing tug of war with them and the angels were going to win, because they wanted Momma so much and Momma was going to be so happy in Heaven. The kids, mine and my niece and nephew miss their Poppa and their Mom alot... but it's best to be honest with them, in terms they can understand. For your Mom, again depending on your faith, you will find the words. Maria Shriver has written a book for children about dying. It's a great book, one I would highly recommend. If you attend church, talk with your priest/minister/rabbi for help. You, too, are a child. You don't outgrow that relationship with your Mom and it's not easy.

My Dad was diagnosed just before Christmas and spent that Christmas in intensive care. This is not easy and I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

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answers from Seattle on

TALK to them- let them know for sure that they can say whatever questions/comments they have - because I promise (((( and this is almost a 100 % guarantee) -- they KNOW something awful is going on-- and they will find a way to make it their fault. Guaranteed.

So-- tell them grandma's body is wearing out -- use whatever spiritual truths you hold -- and it would likely be well to tell them that grandma's love will always be with them-- but her body may not ----. There is a wonderful book --though it is without any spiritual aspect called '''The 10th Good Thing about Barney'' -- you might look it up --

Now- about their age ---you likely might want to talk to both childrens' teachers - -and brush up on developmental levels-- 5 year olds are often at a very fragile place about their bodies - and health--- so be aware of that -- the 7 year old is more stable ( hopefully) --- it's a terrible thing - but I PROMISE --- you will be glad if you
1. talk to them- even the most clumsy words --- stammered or awkward are one million times better than silence --

2. make SURE they know they can say --whatever is in their heart or mind ---they MUST know that you are willing to hear their comments or questions - no matter how ''odd'' they may sound to adult ears

3. be truthful - but cautious --- I know I know-- so tough -

J. - aka- Old Mom

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answers from Medford on

I am so sorry to hear this, especially so close to the holidays. Kids absorb things in bits and pieces and I think it may be a bit much for her to see her Grandma for the first time in a wheelchair AND also know she's going to die. I think you're doing the right thing by trying to prepare her... Maybe for now though , like you said, just let her know that Grandma is sick and her legs are not working very well right now so she'll be in a special chair. Let her absorb that first. Afterwards, hopefully when you've gone home I'm sure she'll have lots of questions about why her legs aren't working and what's wrong with her...which should then open the door for you to talk about Grandma's cancer and that she won't be getting better. Which will than lead to the talk about when Grandma passes on.... if she's like my kids, she'll come back to you several times with more questions and you just find the most gentle way you can to prepare her for that loss and answer her questions as she asks them.
If you practice any kind of faith, it might help to implement that a little bit too...
I don't have any names of any books but it probably wouldn't hurt at all to maybe find a book on dying aimed at little ones like her to help you explain things if you need.
I wish you the best of luck and extend my condolences to you and yours during this very tough time...

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answers from Portland on

Hi Nicole,

First, my sympathies to you.

There is a really good book about the grief process in children and how to best support them through it - it is called "When Children Grieve" and is packed with good advice.

It has been a while since I read it but I remember the book talking about the importance of sharing your sadness and tears so the kids don't learn that their own grief should be hidden. Also, you should know that kids will often grieve the loss of a loved one multiple times over the years as their brains understand death in a different way as they become more mature.

I wish you the best in this process,


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answers from Seattle on

I struggle with the fear daily that my grandmother will get worse as well. She has a non-cancerous brain tumor but is sick a lot. My thoughts are with you on this matter! It helps me to explain sickness and death in a general sense first, as we have had a few close relatives die or fall terminally ill in the last few years. My daughter so far knows that everyone passes sometime and not always when they are ready to. She knows that we can pass on memories of those people to help remember them and honor them. I would make sure your daughters have a video of their grandma, and that she write down things she wants them to remember her by. And something really sweet I saw on a show once was that a mom had "angel bears" made for her daughters out of her mom's clothing after she passed, so they have a constant reminder of her that they can cuddle, talk to, and sleep with. I will be doing that someday for sure, I love the idea. Although I'd have to make one for myself probably even more :)

Blessings to you and your family, I understand some of what you're going through and we're all here for you in your time of distress. Hugs and prayers for strength!

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answers from Portland on

I feel so sad for you and your little girls. Do they not know that she's sick so far? You definitely need to tell them that she is and tell them she is in a wheelchair before they see her in one, if at all possible.

And yes, you need to tell your girls that she is dying. If they don't know she's been sick I suggest that you give them a few days to get used to being sick before telling them about dying. I recommend that you go to the library or to a book store and get a book about dying to read to them. One I recommend is Freddy the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. I don't remember the story now but remember that my daughter responded well to it when our cat died. So it might be about animals. Still dying is dying.

I remember one specifically about the death of a grandparent but I don't remember it's name or author.

Tell them in a gentle way. Reading a book at the same time may make it easier to then talk about it.

Oddly enough my 9 yo granddaughter talks with me about dying because I'm so old (66) even tho I'm in good health. lol I tell her everyone dies but that I won't be dying anytime soon. I tell you this because your girls may become anxious that you'll die too. My counselor suggested that I should tell my granddaughter that I will never leave her which then has led to the talk about how even when my body is gone my spirit will still be with her and she will be able to talk to me any time she wants. This satisfies her for the moment but we seem to have this conversation every few months. I think it may be because my daughter, whom I adopted, is anxious from time to time that I will die. Loss is a big issue with her. Hopefully your daughters will not be as anxious about you as my daughter is.

Anyway, you can tell them similar things about their grandmother. It would be good for both your mil and your daughters to have a conversation together at some point. My own mother died just a few years ago and even tho we had talked about death for most of my life we didn't talk specifically about her dying in the 2 weeks before she died. I thought we'd have time to do that once she went home from rehab. She died before we had this talk and I still regret it. I miss not having cried together.

If we don't tell children in honest terms on their level what is happening they will feel even more confused and anxious because they do sense that something is wrong. You can take your cue from them about what to talk about by listening to their comments and questions. At the very least they need to know that Grandma's body will be gone and before she's actually gone if at all possible. They need to say their good byes. They don't need to necessarily say goodbye out loud but they will have an easier time if they feel that they've been involved in the ending.

All of my thinking is based on the premise that you are close to your daughters and are able to support them while you're grieving. Sometimes we're so overwhelmed ourselves that we aren't able to be intuitive about our children's needs. That is OK.

After my mother's death I learned that people often begin to withdraw from life towards the end. It helped me to know this because I didn't feel close to my mother those last 2 weeks. We had always been close. Once I heard that I realized that what I had seen was her going inside to prepare for her own death. I think that if I'd expressed my grief we could have had a good cry together and I would have felt better. As it was I felt that she had slipped away without saying good bye. I'm sharing this for you to use as an adult if you find it helpful. Everyone is different.

So, I'd be direct and tell them in a few days that Grandma is so sick the she is going to die sooner than any of you want her to die. Let them ask questions. Share with them your beliefs about dying such as Heaven if that is your belief. Read a book together about dying written for children.

Then respond to their questions and tears over the months to come. Let them see that you are sad too. Cry with them but keep any nearly out of control sobbing, if you have that, out of their hearing. They need to know that you are able to care for them while you are also grieving.

As a police officer I have had to tell children that a parent has died. The children have been stoic. Your daughters may also not have a reaction at first. If so just be Q.. You don't have to talk about it. The first time you tell them may just be telling them that she is so very sick that she will die.

I never saw those children after the initial meeting and so I don't have experience with how they reacted over time. My philosophy, in general, when talking with kids is to be gentle and leave long pauses to allow them to absorb what I've said and to allow them to ask questions about what they're interested in knowing. I allow hours, days or even a week or more depending on how important that I feel the child needs to talk before I bring up the specific subject again.

In the case of dying I think I'd acknowledge it often even if the child doesn't seem to want to talk about it. It's especially easy for children to fantasize about issues and if their fantasies are never dealt with they grow up feeling confused about the truth. A way of acknowledging the very painful truth is to say something like, "I'm feeling sad because Grandma is so sick." That gives them the opportunity to say they are sad if they want to say it. It also allows them to ask questions. You don't have to be direct in what you say. And you don't have to even plan it. Just say what is on your heart.

My prayers are with you. Your daughter's will be fine with your loving support. Share age appropriate information and give them time with their grandmother to adjust to her leaving. Especially share their grief with them. Reassure them that you will always be with them to care for them.

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answers from Portland on

You have already gotten some great advice, but I just wanted to add one thing. Sometimes parents keep a happy face around the kids and then go cry in private and keep their grief hidden from the kids. It may seem like this spares the kids, but it doesn't. The kids will look to their parent to learn how to deal with their grief. If you are keeping a happy brave face around them, they will assume that is the right thing to do. They will try their best to keep from crying just like you do. Your kids need to see you grieve, and they need to talk. Obviously, strong emotions and scary displays of emotion should be kept private. You don't want to be screaming and sobbing in front of a helpless child. Letting tears slip down your face though is not harmful and gives them permission to express their feelings too.
Talk, talk, talk.....healing comes in being together and sharing your grief.

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answers from Portland on

The truth is important, because not knowing what's happening allows young minds to create all sorts of misunderstandings, sometimes far more confusing and frightening than the truth. You can keep it appropriate, of course, and at your children's ages, rather concrete.

My nearly-4-year-old grandson just lost a great grandmother unexpectedly. His mom and I explained why we were crying after the news came – she was very old and her body got too tired to go on living. Now she has left her body and her spirit and memories are in a good place where nothing hurts her or makes her tired. We were happy for her and sad for ourselves, because we would miss her.

He received that information without distress, and asked only a few additional questions over the following minutes and days.

During those brief follow-ups, we told him that his mom would fly to San Diego for the funeral, at which time the GG's *body* (not GG) would be put in a beautiful box and buried the ground, and that was a good thing for everybody, because GG was not in that body any more, and because that was a time we could all share how special she had been to all of us.

The only thing that upset him was that he wanted to go, too, to "see how she ends." He was truly curious. I thought that was a sweet and understanding comment from one so young.

I think if you share your feelings honestly – all the love and appreciation and regrets and joys and sadness (hold back any bitterness) – your children will sort it out and be better for it. If they feel sad, don't try to protect them from those feelings, just help them process it. It's normal, and even good, to experience the full range of human emotion.

We can't shield young children from death, which is the completely natural consequence of living. I think it could be helpful, if a child expresses fear of dying because everyone dies, to simply say something like: "Everyone has a turn at living, and then when their turn is over, they die. For most of us, our turn ends when they we very old and tired, and we are usually happy to rest and let new babies have their turn. And this is YOUR turn to live!"

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answers from Portland on

Lots of good advice here, I just wanted to mention a couple of books that we have used recently as my 4 year old went through a little phase of really wanting to talk about death. One that has already been mentioned, which we too found very useful, is The Fall of Freddy the Leaf (the library has it) which is a wonderful book about life cycles; we also bought When a Pet Dies, by Fred Rogers, its not about people obviously but talks about death and how you might feel about it and how all of the feelings are ok. Neither of these is religious in anyway but we just included our beliefs in our discussion about death. One thing that the Family Communications website mentions, which has also been mentioned here, is to make sure to distinguish the kind of sickness that Grandma has with colds, etc. that can be caught. Of course, children can get cancer too, but hearing that it isn't some usual kind of sickness can be reassuring. I hope things go smoothly for you during this loss.

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answers from Seattle on


Kids have an amazing ability to understand what's going on. In this case I'd take your cues from your girls. Answer their questions honestly, and in their language. If they don't ask they're probably not ready to cope with the answers.

Last year when my kids were 5 and 1 1/2 their great-grandmother died of leukemia. The little one had no clue, the older one asked a couple of questions then went on about his life. If he wants to talk about it now (he hasn't asked) we'll answer his questions but otherwise we just let it go.

Hope this helps,

Afterthought: As a young child I remember walking on a freeway overpass with my dad and gramma. There was a person laying in the middle of a lane of the freeway with a sheet completely covering the body. At that age I thought he was sleeping in the road, and asked. I don't remember the answer I was given but I still remember that the answer I was given was a lie. Kids know when they're being lied to.

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answers from Eugene on

My grandfather had bone cancer and passed away on the 10th of November of this year. My daughter is 7 and had spent a great amount of time with her great grandparents. With him being sick and taking a turn for a worse we found the easiest way for her was to be honest. They probally have already heard the cancer word in multiple places and already have some idea of what's goin on.

Just tell them that this kind of cancer can't be cured with medicine and we need to make her as comfortable as possible that soon she will no longer be here with us. But that she will be in a better place with no pain.

My daughter wanted to make get well cards and even though I knew he wasn't goin to get better this small thing made her feel better. And she would often check to make sure he had his favorite blanket with him and if he didnt' have it she would get upset. She would read to him and even though he got to point he couldn't answer her we told her that he could still hear her and he was glad she was there.

When he passed away we informed her of his passing and yes she cried and was upset. And she asked if he was in pain anymore. And we told her no and that he didn't have to take any more pain pill or be hooked up to machines anymore. And she was sad but she was glad he didn't hurt anymore.

Each child is different but in our case being honest bout the cancer and the pain of it all and fact he would soon no longer be in pain was a comfort for her. No child wants to hear that someone they love is in pain.

Sorry to hear about your MIL. Keep your chin up and know that many people will be thinkin of you.


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answers from Seattle on

It sounds like you haven't told them that grandma is sick yet. Has grandma's behavior changed lately so that the girls would notice? Tired? New things at the house that were not there before? If so then you could ask them if they've noticed that grandma has been tired for a while and let them know that she is sick and is going to be in a wheelchair when they see her. As to discussing what cancer is or if grandma is dying you're going to have to have that conversation but hopefully not all on the same day. As long as you don't ever deny that grandma is going to die you should be able to get through the questions and conversations as they occur. You might also consider making individual time for each daughter to spend with grandma and or yourself as there is a big difference between children's understanding of illness, death, and dying at 4 and 7. Check with your local children's librarian to see if they have any recommendations about books you can read with your girls, you can then pick up a book or two when you pick up other books to read together.

The hardest thing about my grandmother dying of cancer when I was young was seeing my mom crying and feeling the need to take care of her. Not only was I loosing grandma but suddenly mom wasn't the unchanging rock (support) that I thought she was which let me think of all sorts of things like what if my mom died too.

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answers from Portland on

From personal experience, please find a way to tell them. We knew that Daddy died but, that was it. Until our teens we still believed it was a lie, that's when I found the Death Certificate.
We also heard all the grown-ups talking when my Grandmother had cancer. We didn't understand what was going on, then she died.
Maybe explain to them that Grandma is very sick, and that at some point she will be going to heaven (or whatever you believe). Keep telling them this, and focus on all the fun, take lots of pictures, answer their questions in an age appropriate way.
Meanwhile, keep being positive when you are with her, and take the kids to see her, just explain the changes.
It isn't easy but, with honesty and love you will all make it through.

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answers from Seattle on

That's definately a tough situation.

I would probably tell them that Grandma is very sick and isn't going to get better. It's not like when you or their dad is sick. They can't get this kind of sick from seeing her. You're being honest with them, but taking some of the possible fear out of the situation. After that, I would honestly answer their questions.

If you're religious, the best description of death for kids that I've heard went something like this: Each night, you go to sleep and in the morning, mommmy and daddy wake you up. Soon, grandma will go to sleep in a different way than you or I and God will wake her up.

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answers from Portland on

I can remember losing quite a few relatives growing up... and my own dad died when my son was almost 2, and my nieces were 3 and 8 (he died on the oldests birthday). I will say this... have faith in your kids, they are resiliant. They don't think the way we do... they are abstract thinkers and therefore, these things are much easier to deal with. Obviously the oldest knew as she had seen him get sicker and sicker, and the only thing she asked for for her bday the night before we that he not die that day. There was no way to prepare the younger two, who right up until the day he died crawled on his lap and read with him several times a day. But somehow, they never looked back once he was gone. It was as if they were at total peace with it and had no questions.
Your daughters are a little older than my son was, and may have more questions, but in my opinion, you should not tell them. I am sure they are smart kids and I am sure they will pick up on some of the hints and that expectation will sink in... let nature take its course. Just becareful to tell them that she is "sick"... my son thought for a long time that anyone that was sick was going to "go away" like Grandpa did. We came up with Grandpa was "ill"... because that is not a word we use as often as sick.

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answers from Seattle on

If you are regular church goers, talk to your pastor, and ask him for his/her help in preparing your daughters. Many religions have a (I don't want to say standardized) but a message for children as yours to help them through times like these. Our belief systems, our religious communities our there for times of joys and in times of sorrows.

Blessings for your family,


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answers from Portland on

When I was between 8-10, I went through the deaths of my best friend, my grandpa and a surrogate grandma. With the 1st 2 we had no warning but with my surrogate grandma, we knew because she had late stage cancer. My mom was up front with me about all of the deaths and she told me that my surrogate grandma had cancer and was going to die. One of my favorite memories was the day we packed a lunch and took it to grandma's house and had lunch with her in her bedroom - I knew that I had to make memories with her while she lived. She died shortly after our lunch together and to this day I make sure that I make the memories with people because you never know what is going to happen.

Please talk openly with your daughters, let them ask questions and let them lead the conversation after you have given them he basics. Kids are amazing and can bring such joy to a time of mourning.

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answers from Portland on

Although nothing is really certain and death is a hard concept to grasp, I would open up the conversation with your girls that their Grandmother is very sick. Perhaps they will ask: Is she dying? I would say I think so. Will she get better? I don't think so. I think that just seeing their Grandmother in a wheel chair will bring up questions with most children.

The only thing I would worry about is if Grandmother thinks that she is not dying. I would want to know what she thinks about the children knowing that she is dying. Make sure you talk to your MIL about it too.

You can tell them she is dying, but the concept is hard and grief is experienced in layers and differently for each of us. They might be sad to hear she is dying, but they will still experience sadness again when she actually dies.

I would be truthful in what is happening in the present and answer their questions truthfully and not be too graphic about her condition.

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answers from Bellingham on

Hello, I am in the same mother has been in the hospital with acute granulosis (?) Leukemia on top of already having an extremely rare disease called Langerhans Histiocytoma. We have already nearly lost her twice in since she was admitted...

I have spared my children the details or my emotions (I go in the room to cry it all out) and have spoken with them "frankly" about just the facts in their terms (mine are 9) that grama is not doing well. She is sick and has had to go to the hospital (but they don't know all the details of that) and that she will be there for a while...I have had then join me in praying and sending her lots of love and lifting her up (this is at least what they can do) She may not survive this (most likely will not) and it will be a hard loss, but life does go on and we need to mourn and remember to live our lives because we are still here and that is what she would want us to do - to remember her in everything. This is what I have far.

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answers from Honolulu on

I think you are doing the right thing by asking others that have experienced it to help and I would also go to the library and find a book on preparation of death of a loved one.
I am so sorry for you and your imminent loss.
I wish you well.

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