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Relationships - April 2015

My grandpa has died

 

Maggi Stamp is a highly qualified relationship counsellor and trainer who writes each month about emotional and practical concerns and challenges that many of us meet in later life. For 20 years, as well as running a private practise, Maggi worked with the organisation Relate to help married and single people, cohabiting couples, same sex couples, families, young and old people and the bereaved to develop, foster and enjoy healthy and fulfilling relationships. No less important, as she is herself a wife, mother and grandmother, she brings a lifetime of varied and eventful experience to enhance her empathy and understanding.  

Many of her examples are based on concerns that clients, family and friends have presented over the years. In the monthly articles where she responds to issues raised by readers, she strictly respects confidentiality and never identifies those who write to her. But the individual worries they raise are invariably felt by others, so her responses can help many.

You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column.



My grandpa has died

The parental aim in a child's early years is an automatic one of nurture and protection. So when a sad and unexpected event occurs which gives pain to all concerned, how do we protect the child?

Bereavement is inescapable. We all try hard to avoid our exposure to it but none of us has much effect on when and where.

My three-year-old grandaughter has just lost one of her grandfathers. She saw him weekly, and adored him. He had the ability to entrance his grandchildren, to entertain and imperceptably educate them. I have watched the effect of his absence and then his death upon her. She became subdued and 'clingy', needing more of her mothers cuddles than usual.

Although the knee-jerk reaction is to protect a child from the pain of loss, to hide this with promises of seeing the grandparent again soon is counter-productive, to say the least, leaving the child expecting grandpa to walk in soon and so remain puzzled by his absence and indeed the behaviour changes of at least one parent.

My daughter-in-law handled this so gently and bravely. Although she knew her father was suffering from an incurable illness, neither she nor her mother or siblings thought it would progress so quickly. Very soon there were regular hospital visits, extra child care to fill in the days when her parents would look after their granddaughter, and time off work.

All this while, my daughter-in-law was needing to handle her own growing fears for her father.

It is helpful if at a time like this a partner can not only remain flexible in their priorities, keep everything as stable as possible for the child, but also offer time and space for talking, alongside knowing they will not be the centre of their partner's attention for a while.

It is good for a couple to talk about how they might manage such an event, no matter how much they wish it not to happen.

Parents with a particular religious faith may well have guidance about how to speak to their children about a death in the family. With Christians for example it might be that Grandpa has gone to heaven to live with Jesus and he will keep watch over us from there. Other faiths have similar ways of helping children accept the passing of a loved one. My son and daughter-in-law chose to simply tell their daughter her Grandpa had died and they couldn't see him any more because he was a long way away but up with the stars and able to see her. He would always love her very much. If she wanted to tell him something, or show him things, she could look up at the stars in the evening and he would see her.

Parents' desire to protect the child from 'too much truth' is natural and kind. A three-year-old is not yet ready to hear about the stark reality of dying, other than, if it is unavoidable, attempting to explain the time limits of the human body as a machine which will wear out, or will occasionally be broken and not work any more. But in general, if the child has not witnessed a death, then the best explanation is to give a feeling of finality. "He had to go a long way away and we won't see him again". But a reassurance that there was no deliberate leaving of those who Grandpa loved - "he will always love you and all of us " - along with a gentle connection to a small child's innate sense of the magical - " he is up with the stars and will hear you and see you".

Parents have no need to hide their tears at times if they come unexpectedly. But it is good to explain and reassure - "I'm feeling a little bit sad and missing Grandpa. But he made us all smile a lot didn't he?" What they are teaching the child is that it is part of loving someone to miss them very much when they are gone, and that it is a natural part of loving; nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.

If a parent were to be caught in a period of heavy and uncontrollable mourning, they need to be aware that the child could be unnerved or frightened by a mummy or daddy who is seemingly unable to function as their carer. That could be eased by a supportive partner or spouse being alert and ready to reassure or distract the child, perhaps take them for a walk or a treat elsewhere, allowing the grief to be expressed freely.

As a small child, one of the most important feelings is of personal security. In the western world at least, for a parent to completely break down over and over is distressing and de-stabilising for them. The learning they will take from this is that you can't rely on anyone to be strong for you, even your parent, and so it seems better not to love as that appears to be too painful.

We cannot hide painful experiences from our children. Nor can we deny that loving someone can hurt at times. What we can offer them though, is a strong feeling that they are loved, are loveable, and that the death of a family member does not diminish nor cancel the love and happiness that person gave to all those he or she shared life with. They can be talked about, and their memory smiled over. That is their legacy and the continuity which a loving family has as its strength at the core.

Books to help children understand loss:

'Badger's Parting Gifts' by Susan Varley 'Are You Sad Little Bear? A book about learning to say goodbye' by Rachel Rivett 'Waterbugs and Dragonflies, by Doris Stickney


You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column.


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