Ways To Help Your Child Deal With Ailing Grandparents

Kids share a special bond with their grandparents. Therefore, when a grandparent is very ill, it can be hard on your child. As parents, there are ways you can ease this for him. Find out how.

By Mahalakshmi Rajagopal

Ways To Help Your Child Deal With Ailing Grandparents
A special relationship like none other

“I still remember that day vividly. I was 12 years old and playing with my blocks in the living room when a telegram arrived from our native town. It carried news of my grandfather being admitted in the intensive care unit of a hospital and being quite serious. We packed and left immediately. When we reached my grandparents’ house next morning, several family members had gathered there. My grandfather had passed away the night before. I was shocked! Thoughts swirled in my head and I realised I would no longer receive weekly postcards from him, and more than that, I would never see him again. I missed him terribly. Years later, I realised I dealt with the grief and came to terms with it all by myself. Could I have been provided with better support during that difficult time?”- Reethika Seth, a copywriter with a leading advertising agency.

How children are affected by ailing grandparents

“Surely two of the most satisfying experiences in life must be those of being a grandchild or a grandparent” – Donald A. Norberg.

True. Nothing quite like the wonderful relationship a grandchild and grandparent share. But, during your children’s growing up years, they may have to face tough situations like witnessing their once energetic grandparents become bedridden because of a serious illness, or worse, seeing them pass away. This can take a heavy toll on your children and be a life-altering experience.

Illnesses in the elderly bring about drastic changes in their everyday lifestyle. While some may be confined to a wheel chair or bed, others may be able to move around but with caretakers or nurses tending to their every need. Whatever change, small or big, that any illness may bring into the life of an ailing grandparent, it is bound to have an impact on your children as well. And young children are not old enough to understand or perceive what is happening around them.

Add to this, many times, parents struggle between sharing the facts and hiding the truth from children, in a bid to protect them from the pain, while they are managing their own emotions. But, this only adds to your children’s confusion and ends up having a negative impact on them.

So, how can you help your child deal with an ailing grandparent?

Well, as parents, you can deal with this sensitive subject with your child in certain ways. Here are a few:

  • To begin with, help your child to accept this change with empathy. Encourage him to participate in caregiving. Discuss the grandparent’s situation and illness as far as possible in your child’s presence instead of sending him away to his room. When you and other family members find the need to discuss some serious issues regarding health or illness without your child’s knowledge, ensure you do so in a manner that does not make him feel excluded or do so when he is not around. But, remember, it is always better to be truthful to your child, of course, in a gentle way.
  • If the disease the grandparent is suffering from is contagious, state the facts and explain the situation in a gentle manner. Make your child understand why you are isolating your parent or in-law and how this action will help her grandparent heal better. Also, stress on the fact that this is essential so that the illness will not spread to other family members.
  • In case the illness has resulted in amputation or disfigurement in the grandparent’s physical appearance, ensure that you discuss the same with your child and prepare him for the change in the appearance. Also, explain why it had to be done and help him understand that this was necessary as a process of recovery from the illness. Further, encourage your child to meet his grandparent to comfort himand offer his support. You could also introduce your little boy to how the wheelchair, walker or other artificial support equipment work and how they will assist the grandparent in his daily routine.
  • For example, here is a scenario and the way you can talk to your child about it: “Grandma will now require more help and assistance as the doctors had to remove her right leg. The doctors realised we love her a lot and that we want her back with us. So, they removed the leg that was troubling her. Now she will soon return home and will continue to take care of you when you return from school, although she may find it a little difficult to move about and prepare your favourite snacks. Let’s discuss how you think we can all support her and help her in her recovery.”
  • In the event of the grandparent being hospitalised, ensure your child visits him a few times while also taking all necessary precautions to protect your child from contracting any infection. The hospital visits are essential, to firstly let your child know that her grandparent is unwell but is being taken care of; to include her in the role of caregiving; and to prepare her to handle what may follow after hospitalisation – recovery, disability or death.

How to talk about death with your children

Broach this subject gently. It is always advisable to introduce death as a process that is natural to any living being, as early as possible, irrespective of you expecting an eventuality in your family. This may invariably invite your child’s curiosity towards knowing when different family members may die; but that’s alright. The more you and your child talk about it, the more she will learn to accept it. You may also help her understand death by narrating stories or personal anecdotes. If your child is aware of death as a part of life, it may be relatively easy for you to help her understand and deal with her grandparent’s death, while you deal with your own emotions. 

But remember, amidst your grief, you’ll need to respond to her every curious question truthfully and patiently. Also, in the case of an eventuality, never ‘expect’ a specific type of reaction from your child, as each child deals with emotions in different ways, just the way adults do.

For example, here is an instance where a child reacted to the unfortunate situation in a certain way:

In this case, the grandmother who passed away was the primary caregiver of a six-year-old girl. While the passing was a shock to the parents themselves, they dreaded the impact it would have on their little girl. So, they went to pick her up from school that day. The child was delighted to see her parents come to pick her up, as she usually went home by the school bus and the grandmother would receive her.

On the way back home, the parents stopped at an ice cream parlour and got their daughter a cup. Then, they slowly broke the news to her. The little girl paused, looked up at them and continued with her ice cream without saying a word. On reaching home, she did not speak much and went about her routine. In fact, she even insisted on going for her tennis coaching. When her parents gently refused and told her that her presence was required for her grandmother’s final rites, she broke down and wept for an hour before finally calming down. Although she was in denial at first, the granddaughter had come to accept the inevitable and dealt with it in her own way. This helped the healing process.

So, allow your child to experience the grief and heal in her own way. Let her be a part of the grieving. At the same time, do not force your child to get over the unfortunate incident. After all, she has shared a loving bond with her grandparent and it can be hard for her to let go. Let your child know that she is free to handle it the way she wants to. Let her take her time. But be there for her as a constant support.

In closing, here is an amusing moment shared by Neha from Pune: “When we lost our grandfather (mother’s dad), we gently explained to our younger brother, who was seven at that time, that granddad died due to old age. After musing over it for a while, he walked up to his paternal grandfather and asked him why he was still alive and when he would die. Everyone who was around smiled at his innocence. Well, the grandfather eventually passed away, although 30 years later, at the ripe old age of 95!”. 

Mahalakshmi Rajagopal, Director, Sahayam Intervention Centre, Sahayam Charitable Trust.

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