The grand goodbye

Helping kids cope with the loss of a grandparent


Phyllis Nutkis


When Katy Haney-Madlock serves her family potato pie and watergate salad for dinner, she’s also dishing up memories of her grandmother, who passed away two years ago. Cooking Granny’s recipes is just one of the ways that Katy helps keep the happier times in focus for herself and her two children, Kabrea and Kartier, who were 10 and 15 when their great-grandmother died.

It’s hard, Haney-Madlock says, but it is possible.

Dealing with death is difficult for anyone, but it can be especially traumatizing for children who suddenly must cope with a gaping hole in the family—often without understanding why. But by speaking openly about death, encouraging kids to express their emotions and keeping the memory of the grandparent alive, parents can help their children survive this rough time, say experts and families.

Speak openly, honestly

Talking honestly to children about death is an essential coping tool, says psychologist Carol Gordon of Arlington Heights, who works with children, adolescents and adults. “It’s important to explain things at the child’s level and then allow them to ask as many questions as they have,” she says. “Often we don’t have the answers to those questions, but it’s OK to tell your child that you don’t know.”

Gordon used this strategy when her mother died three years ago. She didn’t hide her grief from the children, ages 3, 6 and 9. “Children need to know that it’s OK for them to express their feelings, so they need to see their parents doing it, too,” she says.

Gordon encourages families to speak openly about death and illness, though she says there’s no hard and fast rule about whether children should see a sick grandparent in the hospital or attend a funeral. It depends on the individual child, as well as the age. “As a parent, you base that decision on your sense of what your child can handle,” she explains.

Gordon didn’t take her kids to see their grandmother in the hospice during her last few weeks—she felt it would frighten them. “By that time, my mom wasn’t able to respond to them any more, and I wanted them to be able to focus on the good memories they had of their grandmother,” Gordon says.

Only her two older children attended the funeral. To prepare them, Gordon explained it would be a sad time, but that their aunts, uncles and cousins would be with them, and they would all help one another get through it.

Milwaukee resident Haney-Madlock, on the other hand, saw those last few chances to visit Granny as a way to prepare her kids for their great-grandmother’s death.

“I always took the kids with me when we went to visit,” she says. “I knew she was going to die, and I didn’t want it to be a shock for them.” After each visit, she looked for moments to bring up the situation. “Granny’s not doing too well,” she would say. Once, after a doctor visit, she told the children, “The doctor says it doesn’t look like it will be long.”

Kabrea remembers being comforted by the talks. “She told me that this was normal, that no one lives forever,” she says. “She told me that Granny was old and sick now, but that soon she’d be in a better place.” After Granny died, Kabrea says, talking with her mother helped her to calm down.

Talking about death also helped Marlon and Shelley Kleinman of Northbrook and their daughters, Lily and Ariella, who were 4 and 8 years old when Marlon’s father died. “The girls knew that I lost my own father when I was 14,” says Shelley. “Death was never a taboo subject.”

When her father-in-law became ill, Kleinman and her husband had frequent conversations with the children. “We told the girls the truth—that their ‘Saba’ was very sick and that the doctors didn’t think they could make him better,” says Shelley. Their religious faith also played a part. “We explained to them that God knew that this was Saba’s time to go.”

Ariella, now 14, remembers being frightened by her grandfather in the hospital. “I was afraid. . . but I didn’t tell anyone because everyone looked so sad,” she says. “But later when we got home, my parents talked to me about it. I cried, but I still felt better.”

It’s OK to be sad

As for children too young for abstract explanations—preschoolers up to age 7 or so—Gordon suggests having them draw pictures as an emotional outlet. Her own children drew pictures for their grandmother’s hospice room as a way of “sending their love.” After their grandmother died, drawing helped the kids express their feelings and gave their parents an opportunity to understand those feelings.

Gordon emphasizes that a parent may find it hard to speak with children about death so soon after a family member dies. “Obviously, you’re dealing with the loss of your own parent, and it’s painful, but it’s something you have to do,” she says.

And while it’s difficult, Gordon also suggests maintaining your routines. After her mother died, sticking to her children’s regular schedule helped everyone.

“The kids went to school, and I drove them to their afterschool activities as usual, even though my heart was breaking,” Gordon says. “The structure helped us all recognize that this intense grief was temporary, and we would get over this hump.”

In most cases, kids get over the toughest “humps” within a week or so. But if several weeks have passed and a child is still crying excessively, not eating or sleeping normally, has become withdrawn or displays unusually aggressive behavior or is “acting out,” it’s time to seek professional help, Gordon says.

Start with your family doctor or pediatrician, who should be able to refer you to a therapist. Or contact your local hospital. There are also numerous community support groups and resources, many of which can be found through Chicago’s Center for Grief Recovery: recovery-children-grief.html. (See sidebar for more resources).

Gordon also suggests alerting your children’s teachers and the parents of their friends about the family situation so they can be on the lookout for any unusual reactions or signs of stress.

Remember the good times

After the immediate pain has eased, helping children remember special times and things about the grandparent can be a continuing form of support. There are many ways to do this, but physical mementos are often the most meaningful.

Family photo albums are an important part of the Kleinman family’s recollections of Saba. “When we look at the pictures, Bubie [her grandmother] tells us stories about Saba from before we were born,” says 9-year-old Lily.

She and her sister Ariella also have a few special keepsakes to remember their grandfather, including one of his shoes, which Ariella keeps in her closet. (Just one shoe, because “my Bubie has the other one,” she says.) The Kleinman family has another daily reminder of Saba—5-year-old Tani, born just months after Saba died, is named after him.

Family celebrations and holidays also help. Each year at the Kleinman’s Passover Seder, Saba’s traditional family melodies are sung. The family also lights a candle and says special prayers on the anniversary of his death.

The Haney-Madlock family’s trips to visit relatives in Granny’s Arkansas hometown now include a stop to put flowers on her grave. They also have a collection of videos and photo albums. “We have a video of Granny on a trip to the zoo, when she was 86 years old,” Haney-Madlock says. “It was the first time she’d ever been there.”

Reminders of Granny are found throughout their home: her aprons, the dolls and stuffed animals she crocheted for each new baby in the family and the many quilts she made. “Everyone has at least two quilts,” laughs Haney-Madlock.

Kabrea, now 12, has a couple of her grandmother’s dresses, and even wears them occasionally.

One of the family’s favorites is a memory book. Haney-Madlock’s mother bought it for Granny about 10 years ago. It’s a do-it-yourself book with various sections on Granny’s life. Each child, grandchild and great-grandchild took turns interviewing Granny and writing down her answers. Many of the questions were about her childhood: “What was your favorite food? What games did you like to play? What did the grocery store you shopped at look like?” And even, “When did you first fall in love?”

Just as meaningful are the memories of time spent together, including listening to Granny’s stories. 

The last picture in the book is of Granny at her 86th birthday party—just months before she died. She’s grinning, batting balloons back and forth with the children in her nursing home room. Her hair is a riot of braids, colorful beads and bows, compliments of her great-granddaughters.

Kabrea laughs as she recalls that special day. “She used to say, ‘Let’s get rowdy!’ She always did like to have a good time.”


Phyllis Nutkis is a writer and former preschool teacher living in Skokie. She and her husband have three grown children and two grandchildren.


Ways to help kids remember a grandparent

•  Photo albums. Write down captions for the photos and include anecdotes or stories in pocket folders in the scrapbook.

•  Videos. Plan family get-togethers to watch videos that include the grandparent.

•  A cookbook. Collect and print out some of the grandparent’s favorite recipes. Let the children help choose and prepare the food when you use the cookbook.

•  Photos. Display pictures prominently on walls, end tables or the piano.

•  Their things. Use pot holders, aprons, dishes and books that belonged to the grandparent. Keep the grandparent’s jewelry, clothing or other special items around.

•  Singing. Sing songs that your children used to sing with the grandparent: Sing in the car, when tucking kids in to bed or when making dinner.

•  Traditions. For holidays and other celebrations, keep some customs and rituals that the family did with the grandparent.

•  Birthdays. Celebrate the grandparent’s birthday. This might be a time to gather around the dinner table and tell stories or look at pictures.

• Memory books. Use a ready-made format such as The Gift of a Memory by Marianne Richmond or My Grandfather and Me and My Grandmother and Me, both by Jane Drake, Ann Love and Scot Ritchie. Or make one using your own design. Phyllis Nutkis



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