By Bev and Phil Haas
My dad has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Our children are very close to their grandpa and we’re looking for the best way to prepare them for his approaching death.
First of all, we’re so sorry about your dad’s terminal illness. Your concern is not uncommon. Most of us hesitate to think about death, much less discuss it with our children. Even so, death is an inescapable fact of life.
Long before we realize it, children become aware of death. Recently Phil was walking along the sidewalk with our 4-year-old grandson and they came across a dead bird. Caden asked if the bird was dead and Phil said yes. He then wanted to know if it would come back to life like Jesus did. Death is a part of life, and children, at some level, are aware of it.
Talking About Death
A good place to start is for you to be genuine and openly talk about what is happening with your dad. By talking to your children about their grandpa, you’ll discover what they know and don’t know about death and if they have misconceptions, fears, or worries. You can then help by speaking to their specific concerns.
What you say to your children, or when you say it, will depend on your children’s ages and experiences. When telling a child someone may die, make it a point to use the word “die” in your conversation. Children do not understand euphemisms. Some children might become afraid of sleeping when death is referred to as sleep. Also, be wary of saying “God took grandpa,” lest they fear God is going to kidnap someone else they love. They need to understand that death is part of the life cycle.
Simply begin by explaining that Grandpa is very sick and may die soon. Keep it short and simple. Then give them time to ask you questions.
Most children do not sit down and discuss a subject at length. So be prepared for an off and on conversation that happens in snippets. Reading books together and talking afterward about the feelings they bring to the surface is another good way of starting to talk about death. Your library can provide a list of children’s books on the subject.
Not Having All the Answers
Listen carefully when a child asks a question. Make sure you understand what he wants to know before you answer the question. While not all our answers may be comforting, we can share what we truly believe. Where we have doubts, an honest, “I just don’t know the answer to that one,” may be more comforting than an explanation we aren’t sure about ourselves.
Children usually sense our doubts. White lies, no matter how well intended, can create uneasiness and distrust. Besides, sooner, or later, our children will learn that we are not all knowing, and maybe we can make that discovery easier for them if we calmly and matter-of-factly tell them we don’t have all the answers.
Sharing Your Faith
Our faith teaches us not only how to live, but also how to die. Regardless of how strong or comforting your faith may be, death still means the absence of a loved one.
A close friend of ours is dealing with the approaching death of her dad. She has told us that her faith tells her where her dad will be when he dies, but the painful reality is she also knows where he will not be—physically present with her and the rest of the family.
Now is the time to encourage your children to share their feelings of sadness with you and their feelings of love with their grandpa. Include Grandpa in your prayers with the children and consider ways they can say goodbye.
One suggestion is to have them make a card expressing love for their grandpa. Your children will come up with more ways if you encourage them to do so. Our instinct as parents is to protect our children from pain; but now is the time to prepare them for the pain of separation that will occur when your dad dies.
Seize this opportunity to allow God to speak through his Word. Find a favorite passage in today’s language and help your children hide it in their hearts. Here are several to consider: John 3:16; 14:1-4; Romans 8:38, 39; 14:8; and 1 Corinthians 15:43-57.
Send your questions about family life to Phil and Bev Haas in care of The Lookout, 8805 Governor’s Hill Drive, Suite 400, Cincinnati, OH 45249, firstname.lastname@example.org.We regret that personal replies are not always possible. Phil and Bev Haas are involved in education and family ministry in Cincinnati, Ohio. They are the parents of two children and they have one grandson.