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8 Tips for Talking to Your Kids About an Elderly Loved One’s Illness

Having a loved one with a serious illness is a frightening, confusing time for everyone. But children with elderly family members approaching the end of life often have questions or concerns they may be unable to express.

Knowing exactly what to say to children about illness and dying isn’t as important as simply providing children with plenty of opportunities to talk about what they may be feeling, said Margaret Bohn-Galas, MSSA LISW-S, a licensed independent social worker with Visiting Nurse Association of Ohio Hospice.

Bohn-Galas said parents should make an effort to keep communication open with children during a family member’s health crisis. She offered the following suggestions:

  1. Keep in mind the child’s age and developmental level. You wouldn’t talk with a 14-year-old in the same way you would a 10-year-old or a three-year-old. Choose your words carefully, and be clear in your explanations. “If you are talking to a little one and saying, ‘Grandma is sick,’ the next time a parent gets a cold, the child could get very upset thinking it may be the same sort of sickness that Grandma had,” Bohn-Galas said.
  2. Keep the message simple, and be reassuring. Once you’ve discussed the family member’s illness with the child, revisit the topic again to be sure they understand.
  3. Take the conversation at the child’s pace, and don’t push beyond the point where they seem comfortable. If they change the subject, follow their lead. “Kids can’t sit and counsel like adults can,” Bohn-Galas said. “They have to do it in little doses along the way. They can’t handle it all at one time.”
  4. Be open with your own emotions. Seeing you expressing your feelings gives children validation and a “right” to cry.
  5. Encourage children to use creative expression to explore their feelings. Children often discover and reveal a lot through artwork, writing, singing and imaginative play.
  6. Be on the lookout for signs the child is having trouble coping with the family crisis. “Pay attention to changes in behavior,” Bohn-Galas said. “Kids show stress in different ways. It is important for parents to act immediately when they notice something new.”
  7. Don’t assume that everything is ok just because you don’t see an obvious reaction. If you aren’t sure how your child is feeling, ask.
  8. Don’t try to shield your child from the illness and death of a loved one. Witnessing a loved one’s illness – and understanding the seriousness of it – is an important part of the grieving process. It helps the child prepare to cope with the loved one’s death when that time comes.

“I am a firm believer that kids, no matter how old they are, need to be part of the dying process,” Bohn-Galas said. “Those who have the experience of dealing with death as kids do better in dealing with it as adults. They have a foundation of loss and recovery. They need to experience loss to understand what living is.”

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Learn more about VNA of Ohio home health and hospice services, or call us today at 1-877-698-6264.