Expert strategies for dealing with the loss of a grandparent, age by age

All too many children may be facing the loss of a loved one this year. Here's how to help them through it.

losing a grandparent

The coronavirus pandemic has had a big impact on our daily lives. From homeschooling to financial uncertainty to wearing masks to the grocery store, we've been forced to readjust our everyday routines in many different ways. For many people, however, the pandemic will create an even more painful change: the loss of a loved one.

According to a recent study, one of the grim impacts of the coronavirus pandemic is that millions of Americans could lose a parent or grandparent, including as many as 820,000 grandchildren. Grieving a loss is difficult enough, but social distancing orders have disrupted the process for many people, especially children who are experiencing the loss of their grandparents. Even when they have not lost a loved one, the fact that coronavirus disproportionately affects older adults, specifically their grandparents, looms large in the minds of children.


The grandparent-grandchild relationship is a special bond

Many grandparents have a close relationship with their grandchildren. In fact, this closeness is so common that researchers have actually studied it to identify the common factors that lead to this "solidarity." One of those factors is a grandparent's function within the family. If they provide childcare or serve as a surrogate parent, the bond grandparents have with their grandchildren is particularly strong.

Supportive emotionally and even financially, many grandparents play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren. Other important factors that affect the strength of the grandparent-grandchild relationship include physical proximity, frequency of contact and the strength of the relationships between generations in the family.

Why grief is so difficult during COVID-19

Millions of people are experiencing—or will experience— the loss of a dear friend or family member during this time. Meanwhile, social distancing orders have limited or even halted funerals and other gatherings. And far too many people have missed the chance to say their goodbyes to loved ones in person, making the experience all the more traumatic.

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One factor that makes grieving particularly difficult right now is that many were already experiencing grief or feelings of loss on a day-to-day basis due to the ongoing isolation caused by the coronavirus. For children, not attending school, going to the park with friends and engaging in their other daily activities has had a social and emotional impact on their well-being. Add to that the loss of a grandparent or another loved one, and the sadness, stress or anxiety they're already feeling becomes even harder to bear.

How to help your child cope with grief

Because children of different ages handle grief and death differently, it's important to consider developmentally-appropriate strategies to help your child cope after the loss of a grandparent.

For toddlers + preschoolers (2-5 years old)

At this age, a child's response to the death of a family member is based on the strength of the attachment they have formed. If your child saw or talked to their grandparents frequently—whether in-person, over FaceTime, or on the phone—their bond is typically stronger than a relationship limited to annual or semi-annual visits.

Some strategies to help your young child cope with grief could include gathering pictures and telling stories of some of the special times they shared with their grandparent. If your child doesn't remember a specific story or have the words to express what they remember, gently guide them through what happened. If the bond between your child and their grandparent was particularly strong, create a photo collage that they can reference and look at when they are feeling sad or overwhelmed by their memories. Encourage your child to draw a heart and write down what they love best about their grandparent. There are also many books focused on loss you can read to your child, as well.

It's important to note that young children typically have many questions when a person dies. Keeping your words simple and answering those questions is very important. For example, a 3-year-old child might be confused as to why they can't see the legs of their deceased grandparent in a half-closed casket during the visitation service. Telling the child that the person's legs are under a blanket is a short, simple response, but it can be the reassurance a child needs at that moment.

For elementary-school aged children (5-10 years old)

Compared to a preschooler or toddler, children in elementary school are often more aware of the loss of a grandparent. They may express their grief through withdrawing, tearfulness, anger or short-tempered reactions or have difficulty sleeping or eating. They may also experience increased anxiety or fear that their parents or siblings may suddenly pass away, as well.

During this time, it's important that children are able to accept the way they're feeling and express their emotions openly and honestly. Let your child know that it is normal to feel sadness and loss when you've loved deeply. Tell them It is also okay to be happy and to laugh, as their grandparents would want them to continue to have fun even if they are no longer physically there.

Children often respond well to arts and crafts at this age, so drawing pictures or creating collages is a helpful strategy. Encourage your child to discuss how they felt when they were drawing the picture or making the collage. Opening the doors to discussion allows you to empathize with your child and normalize sad feelings.

Part of a child's grieving process may include expressing regrets about their past words or actions directed toward the deceased family member. If this is the case, give them a physical clock and help them "go back in time" and process what they wish they had done differently. This is not only a helpful strategy for moving through the grieving process but also a tool they can use to overcome future challenges and regret.

For middle school-aged children (11-13 years old)

During middle school, children begin to express themselves more completely and start to understand death more like adults do. As such, they often experience extreme emotions, especially when they're faced with a traumatic event like the death of a family member.

First and foremost, acknowledge your child's feelings and give them permission to express their grief openly. Let your middle schooler know that though you are grieving as well, they should not try to cover up their feelings to protect you.

At this age, it's beneficial for your child to take part in concrete activities for processing their feelings. For example, making a memory box full of small mementos and written memories dedicated to the grandparent's life or making a memory bracelet out of yards and beads can be therapeutic. Perhaps each bead can represent a special time or feeling they shared with their grandparent. Art therapy, drawing, coloring and creative writing activities are ideal activities for preteens to cope with grief. If your child expresses any feelings of regret, the "clock method" mentioned above can also be applied to this age group.

For high-school aged children (14-17 years old)

While pre-teens experience heightened emotions, teenagers often feel ashamed of their grief, and as such, often have difficulty processing the death of a loved one.

Start a dialogue with your high schooler about their feelings and how the loss of their grandparent is affecting them. Encourage them to write a goodbye letter if it can bring them closure. Ask them to tell you about one of their happiest memories of their grandparent. Be careful not to rush their healing process. Remember, everyone processes grief differently and for different lengths of time. Keep the conversation going and be attuned to when your teenager needs a listening ear.

Also, encourage your teen to explore their creativity and take on a new hobby such as writing, drawing, painting, or playing an instrument. Having a creative outlet is crucial because teens might otherwise avoid expressing themselves and turn to risky behaviors to mask their grief.

A final word on coping with grief

Even if your family is not dealing with loss, you and your children may be experiencing a heightened sense of anxiety, stress, or dread during this time. If that's the case, take the time to schedule phone calls or video calls with the people you miss. Staying in touch and reminiscing on important memories can help close the emotional gap of not seeing people in person—even if you are thousands of miles apart.

As an occupational therapist, I've seen a significant increase in parents concerned about their children's mental health and well-being since the pandemic began. If you think your child is experiencing depression, anxiety, or another obstacle—whether due to the loss of a loved one or not—use a free mental health screening tool or get in touch with a professional.

Coping with the death of a loved one is difficult for adults, let alone children. Having strategies and routines to help you and your child experience grief in a healthy way is an essential part of getting through this pandemic.

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