Explaining about a dead grandma

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 6, 2011 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

My mother passed away over 17 years ago, and my father has since re-married a wonderful woman named "Ruth". I have a very good relationship with Ruth - we talk a few times a week on the phone, go shopping together and generally enjoy eachother's company.

When my daughter was born two years ago, I never hesitated in having her call my step-mother "Grandma Ruth". My daughter loves spending time with her Grandma Ruth and the two of them have developed a very special relationship that I'm sure will continue in the years to come, which I'm very happy about.

My question is, how and what do I say to explain the unique family circumstances to my daughter? She is just starting to understand families and the idea of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, and she loves to look at our family picture albums. I've shown her pictures of my mother and I refer to my mother as Grandma "Sally". So far, she hasn't raised the fact that she hasn't met Grandma Sally but I know that she will eventually ask me where Grandma Sally is and/or whether Grandma Ruth is my mommy.

How do I explain it all to her in an age appropriate manner? The lesson I'd like to convey is that good things (Having Grandma Ruth be part of her life) came come out of bad things (not meeting Grandma Sally). But I know someday I will have to explain the concept of death and dying to her, and I'd like to have a pre-school appropriate response so I am not caught off-guard.

Thanks, From: Motherless Daughter, Newton, MA

Dear Motherless Daughter,

I am sorry for your loss, but happy for your gain, and your daughter will be, too, because of your love for both these women.

Right now, she needs only to know the names of all her grandmas, Grandma Ruth, Grandma Sally and whatever she calls your husband's mom. It's great to show her photos of your mother and to call her, "My mom, grandma Sally." The distinction between the two is this this: "Grandma Ruth is someone you see every so often. Grandma Sally isn't someone you see because she died. When people die, we can't see them anymore, but we think of her and love her."
Don't be afraid of using the words, death, dead, died. Being truthful is important. Children take euphemisms literally. In my book, I interviewed Boston grief psychologist Maria Trozzi who tells the story of a 5-year-old whose infant sister died at Christmas. His parents told him, "The angels took her." Fives weeks later, they brought him to see Trozzi because he hadn't slept for more than an hour or two a night since.
Did he want to talk about his sister, she asked.
"No," he said. "I want to talk about the angels. Two things about them. There are lots of them and they are on the loose at Christmas. The second thing is that they don't have headlights. You can't see them coming so you have to stay awake."
Your daughter is too young to grasp even this concept, but being truthful from the start gives you time to get used to saying the words out loud to her, and normalizes the words for her so that, in a year or more, she will feel comfortable to ask questions like, "Where is Grandma Sally?"
Preschoolers' concept of death is mercurial; they believe it is reversible. So even though you have said, repeatedly, "Grandma Sally died," she may say, "When will I see her? When will she come back?" The answer is, "Grandma Sally died. That means she isn't coming back. When someone dies, it's forever." The trick is not to give more information than she's asking for. For now, at age 2ish, she will accept what you tell her, and listen to your stories about when you were a little girl, and like the photo albums. In a year or two, she may understand that when there's a dead insect on the sidewalk, it's dead. It doesn't move any more, or poop or eat or breath. That's what it means to die.That's when she may connect death to Grandma Sally.
That's really all the preparation you need for now. Write in again when she starts to ask questions!

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4 comments so far...
  1. Barbara's advice is great. I completely agree with "not give more information than she's asking for." If you are just matter of fact about it, the facts will reveal themselves. As she gets older, you'll know when she's ready to handle more in depth details. My kids have three grandfathers, including my estranged father and my stepfather. Now they get that Grandpa Joe isn't my biological dad, and that Grandpa Jim is a grandpa they haven't met, but that understanding came with time. They don't need to know everything RIGHT NOW that you know, they will eventually get it.

    Posted by rpj December 6, 11 01:28 PM
  1. Unique family situation???? Do you have any idea how common this is? Or how many kids have 8 grandparents because all their grandparents are divorced and remarried> And how many people have step-siblings and half siblings? Half of all marriages end in divorce. If you are 2 parents living in the same home with 2 kids you are no longer in the majority!

    Don't mean to come off as harsh, but I am in the same situation as you, except my children were very young when my mother died and they don't remember her. My children are now teenagers and also have a special relationship with my stepmother. I have to say, we never really had a big discusson about this. Its something that you just figure out.

    I wouldn't say much of anything until she asks, then you can do as Barbara suggested. She'll figure it all out once she's old enough to actually comprehend how people are related.

    Posted by ash December 9, 11 04:12 PM
  1. You are definitely not alone in this, and that is why I am grateful you wrote the letter and for the advice that followed. I can see how I can adapt it a little bit to explain to my son exactly why he has seven grandparents and why he hasn't met my grandfather, whom my mother talks about constantly and who's name is bound to come up in questions when he gets a bit older.

    Posted by Meri December 12, 11 12:46 PM
  1. Barbara: OP here, Thanks for your helpful and timely advice. While looking through pic albums this weekend in preparation for seeing various relatives for the holiday weekend, my daughter asked a question about my mom and I had the wherewithall to answer gently that she died, and that she lived in our hearts. My daughter was completely satisfied with the answer.
    Ash: Yes, your comment was both harsh and unhelpful. My question was to Barbara for guidance on how to explain the relationship to my daughter in an age appropriate way. You ignored my question, nad instead jumped all over my use of the phrase "unique family situation". Yes, lots of families have various unique circumstances, but to me, mine is unique and I was asking Barbara for advise on how to deal ith it. Your response was unresponsive and rude, and non helpful. As someone who has read your advice for years on the wedding boards, i'm surprised you reacted as harsly as you did here. I'm aware that you chose to deal with this issue but not addressing it, and maybe that worked for your family, but don't disparage me for proactively seeking out a way to talk to my daughetr about it in a producive way. I plan to share lots of stories about my mom with my daughetre as she grows up and I don't want the circumstances of where my mom is to be a mystery to my daughter at all - and certainly don't want it to be something she "just figures out". I'm sorry for you that you were unable to see the reason behind my posting and i hope to see more productive comments from you in the future.

    Posted by motherless in newton December 19, 11 12:27 PM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. Barbara's advice is great. I completely agree with "not give more information than she's asking for." If you are just matter of fact about it, the facts will reveal themselves. As she gets older, you'll know when she's ready to handle more in depth details. My kids have three grandfathers, including my estranged father and my stepfather. Now they get that Grandpa Joe isn't my biological dad, and that Grandpa Jim is a grandpa they haven't met, but that understanding came with time. They don't need to know everything RIGHT NOW that you know, they will eventually get it.

    Posted by rpj December 6, 11 01:28 PM
  1. Unique family situation???? Do you have any idea how common this is? Or how many kids have 8 grandparents because all their grandparents are divorced and remarried> And how many people have step-siblings and half siblings? Half of all marriages end in divorce. If you are 2 parents living in the same home with 2 kids you are no longer in the majority!

    Don't mean to come off as harsh, but I am in the same situation as you, except my children were very young when my mother died and they don't remember her. My children are now teenagers and also have a special relationship with my stepmother. I have to say, we never really had a big discusson about this. Its something that you just figure out.

    I wouldn't say much of anything until she asks, then you can do as Barbara suggested. She'll figure it all out once she's old enough to actually comprehend how people are related.

    Posted by ash December 9, 11 04:12 PM
  1. You are definitely not alone in this, and that is why I am grateful you wrote the letter and for the advice that followed. I can see how I can adapt it a little bit to explain to my son exactly why he has seven grandparents and why he hasn't met my grandfather, whom my mother talks about constantly and who's name is bound to come up in questions when he gets a bit older.

    Posted by Meri December 12, 11 12:46 PM
  1. Barbara: OP here, Thanks for your helpful and timely advice. While looking through pic albums this weekend in preparation for seeing various relatives for the holiday weekend, my daughter asked a question about my mom and I had the wherewithall to answer gently that she died, and that she lived in our hearts. My daughter was completely satisfied with the answer.
    Ash: Yes, your comment was both harsh and unhelpful. My question was to Barbara for guidance on how to explain the relationship to my daughter in an age appropriate way. You ignored my question, nad instead jumped all over my use of the phrase "unique family situation". Yes, lots of families have various unique circumstances, but to me, mine is unique and I was asking Barbara for advise on how to deal ith it. Your response was unresponsive and rude, and non helpful. As someone who has read your advice for years on the wedding boards, i'm surprised you reacted as harsly as you did here. I'm aware that you chose to deal with this issue but not addressing it, and maybe that worked for your family, but don't disparage me for proactively seeking out a way to talk to my daughetr about it in a producive way. I plan to share lots of stories about my mom with my daughetre as she grows up and I don't want the circumstances of where my mom is to be a mystery to my daughter at all - and certainly don't want it to be something she "just figures out". I'm sorry for you that you were unable to see the reason behind my posting and i hope to see more productive comments from you in the future.

    Posted by motherless in newton December 19, 11 12:27 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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