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How to Discuss a Grandparent’s Illness with Your Children

As part of #OurCommitment, we must provide resources for all family members to create spaces for multiple generations. Traditions reached out to Jill Huynh, a licensed social worker and parent coach for decades, to guide adult children in talking about the illness of a grandparent or beloved elder with children. 

Processing The News

When grandparents experience a significant illness, it is often the first time a child or teen has had this life experience. The news can be challenging to share and possibly more difficult for kids or teens to receive and comprehend. An excellent first step is for the parent or caregiver to take some time to process the news themselves. Many will want to rush to inform others. Taking time will help you be your best when delivering difficult news.   

Sharing The News With Emotion

Many feel that “holding yourself together” is the best approach to sharing difficult news. Showing your emotions when sharing the news with your kids/teens is okay. In doing so, you are showing them it is OK to have strong feelings and show them, which is a crucial life lesson. Once you are ready to share, be intentional, creating enough space to answer questions and provide support. For instance, you may want to avoid sharing when you go to school as the child/teen may struggle with focus during the school day after hearing the news.   

It is essential to be honest without sharing too many details that may be hard for a child/teen to understand.  Be prepared for questions about the diagnosis and the prognosis, even if they are not asked. These are tough questions, and thinking about your response ahead of time can be helpful.  Kids deserve to know the truth and will be more likely to turn to you with questions or for support if you are straight with them.  Regarding details, avoid sharing the complete treatment regimen or the entire list of medications. This level of information can be very confusing. The best approach is to remain clear and concise.  

Keep your kids informed and updated on the status and treatment progress, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. They deserve to know how things are going.  

Encouraging Questions & Involvement

Invite your kids to ask questions whenever they have them.  Be prepared that some questions may feel random; kids are trying to process the information without experience. Remind them that no questions are off-limits or out of bounds. If you don’t know the answer to the question kids/teens ask you, let them know you will find the answer and get back to them.  Always follow up to answer every question as swiftly as possible.  

Kids/teens may want to help their grandparents, and many options may be available for this assistance. Encourage them to be creative in thinking of ways to support or offer some ideas. For instance, they may visit their grandparents and read to them or care for their pets while in treatment. Younger children could be invited to draw a picture or make a card. Kids/Teens may feel a lack of control, just as you are, and a sense of purpose in supporting their loved one can make them feel like they have some influence in the situation.  

Suppose your child/teen is struggling with the news and challenges related to their grandparent’s illness, and you notice significant behavior or mood changes and/or difficulty eating or sleeping. In that case, you may consider connecting with a child therapist to provide additional support through individual and/or family therapy.   

A couple of children’s books that may help: 

  • Big Tree is Sick by Nathalie Slosse 
  • Grandpa Can by Dawn Marie Hooks 
  • Also, explore this teen’s book review for understanding Alzheimer’s in a grandparent:  Curveball The Year I Lost My Grip: Book Review.