Need some help explaining this to difficult child


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During the past year and a half, husband's grandmother(V) has been living with husband's parents. As always, we either go to his parents for dinner on Sundays or they come here. During this past year and a half, my kids have become quite fond of their great-grandmother.

About a month and a half ago, she had a mini-stroke and went to the hospital. They did all kinds of tests on her and found lesions on her brain, which had metasticised from somewhere else. Subsequently, they found breast cancer, liver cancer and lung cancer. (the last time she'd seen a doctor before my in-laws took her to their house was when she gave birth to her 56 year old son) She has been in a local nursing home for rehab. I've taken the kids to see her a few times and husband has taken them too.

Lately, she's become extremely lethargic and can barely keep her eyes open. They will most likely be transferring her to hospice in the next week or so. Apparently there are times when she is quite lucid, but not when we've gone.

V has not openly discussed her death with any of her children. She has not discussed dying with anyone, though she is aware of it, as her doctors have told her. She's recently signed all the paperwork, such as living will, power of attorney and a new will. I asked husband's mom if she's talked to her about dying and she won't bring it up, because she thinks her mother doesn't want to talk about it. (Family dynamics! Sheesh!)

The thing is, my kids are making her "get better soon" stuff. Lots of cards and presents and stuff. It's really sweet that they are doing all of this. At some point, very soon, I need to tell Missy that V is not going to get better and she's dying. Perhaps I underestimate my daughter, but it brings great strife to me when I think about explaining this to her. I don't want to tell her too soon, because I don't want her to bring it up to V when we visit, but I don't want to wait too long, because I worry that she'll be upset that I didn't tell her. I don't even want to tell my son. I know if I tell him, he will just worry about it all the time and he will cry about it a lot. I don't really think he'll understand all of it, but he will be quite upset. I wasn't planning on telling him at all, but as I'm typing this, I'm thinking that I should prepare him at some point too, because he won't understand why we can't see her anymore.

Waht are your thoughts? How to tell them? 7 year old terms and 4 year old terms?


Well-Known Member
Well, this is a tough one. I'm sorry to hear your family is going through this. We went through a very similar situation with Duckie when my grandmother died last spring. I was lucky that talk of death isn't taboo in our family, so she could talk to many people about what was happening. The first thing we did was make it perfectly clear that Grandma was seriously ill and wouldn't survive the illness without a miracle. We then talked about what her life would be if she did survive, how very small her world would be after being ravaged by sickness and stroke. We talked a lot about how much we all loved her and how it can be hard to let someone go. We talked about how much Grandma loved each and every one of us and how love doesn't change after someone dies. We made sure she could talk to our church Deacon & Priest when talking to family wasn't good enough. I dried her tears and held her tight, but Duckie got through it.
I'm sure your Missy will as well.

Hound dog

Nana's are Beautiful
Normally I'm upfront with kids. They pick up far more about what is going on around them than adults give them credit for. But I dunno at 7 and 4 if they're going to understand "cancer" and "death" before they have experience with it.

My kids were 7, 5, and 2 when we lost thier grandfather to a heart attack. Actually the man was dying of cancer, but the heart gave out before any really terrible cancer suffering.

We let the kids know what was going on but kept the details to ourselves unless they asked. It made for more pleasant visits for grandpa as well as the kids. But even prepared somewhat, his death devistated them.

It's a tough call, and in the end only you'll be able to judge if your kids will understand if you explain it to them.

Saying prayers for the family.



Well-Known Member
We've always told the truth with-our kids. You could couch it a bit,not necessarily use the word "die," but go ahead and say "Cancer," and suggest they make "I love you" cards instead of get well cards. When we tell our kids these things, we have to caution them not to say anything in front of the person. Even many difficult child's, at a very early age, know that. Both our kids get upset with-us and roll their eyes but it's better to be safe than sorry!
Of course, then you run the risk that if someone close to you gets cancer that is easily treatable, they'll freak out, but you can cross that bridge when you come to it.
She sounds like a neat lady! I am so sorry! :frown:


Active Member
Of course, then you run the risk that if someone close to you gets cancer that is easily treatable, they'll freak out,

Something else that I do worry about.

Thank for your responses. Keep 'em coming.

I have printed out that flyer and I will try to memorize what TM said before speaking to her.


Active Member
People die. This is something that hits kids hard when they first REALLY take it on board. You could say something like, "Grandma V is very old, we all love her very much but she's had a very long life and is getting more and more tired. This sometimes happens when people get very, very old. They just get more and more tired and sleep more and more."
If you can go from there and explain that she will die at some stage, because her body is getting so old that bits are worn out past doctors' ability to fix things any more, but Grandma V is OK with this because she is tired too.

There was a really good children's book which won some awards in Australia few years ago, about a boy remembering his grandpa who died. It was a very good book to help a child comes to terms with this sort of thing. In the story the boy remembers the fun he always had with grandpa, the games they used to play. Then grandpa got sick and said he was too old and tired to play games. Sometimes grandpa was cranky. The story develops to the point where grandpa dies and the boy gets told about it (because he wasn't there) but then grandpa left something for him to play with, something that he and grandpa used to talk about and having this thing helps the boy remember the fun he had with grandpa.
I just looked it up, it was a Children's Book Council picturebook finalist in 1999. It's by Noela Young and Lilith Norman (Text), it's called "Grandpa" and is published by Margaret Hamilton, 1998.

I hope it's available in the US. I remember reading my way through the short list that year. Some of them were awful, but that book was brilliant.



Well-Known Member

I agree with Daisy in that the kids may equate cancer with death. But you also run the risk, if you just tell them that she is sick, that they equate the word "sick" with death.

I think it is important that you first understand that you will have to use a different method with the two children since their ages are so different. My difficult child was Missy's age when my dad died (unexpectantly after hip surgery). It was important that he understand grandfather was not coming back but also understand that surgery and hospitals don't kill people.

If you are a family of faith, use that to talk to your children. That is what I used to talk to mine.

I think with Missy I would tell her that ggma is very sick and won't be coming home again. Talk about the length of her life, the things she has seen, how wonderful it was that she and her brother got to know their ggma since many kids don't. If you believe in heaven, share that comfort of peace and a future with her. I would be honest and brief. She will probably have questions. If she doesn't immediately, she probably will later. Make sure that you ask her a couple times that day, or in the coming days, "is there anything you wanted to ask me about ggma?" Let you know that you are available. I would also tell her that you have not said anything to her brother yet because he is so young and might not understand like she does. Ask her not to say anything to her little bro.

In regards to your son, it is difficult when they are so much younger and death has not been something discussed in the home before. I believe I would play his knowledge by ear. I don't think there is a reason you really have to that the ggma is going to die talk with him. I like the idea of having the childn make I love you cards instead. Make that a change.

But at 4, he will not have a real grasp of the concept of forever, a concept that you kinda need to understand to understand what death means. When ggma dies, I think you handle it then.

I understand your saddness and your need to speak to the children. Good luck.



Active Member
Thanks Marg. I'm going to look up that book. I think the idea of her age and how she's getting more and more tired may be a good way of letting her know that her body is just beginning to wear out, instead of bringing up cancer as the reason. I will tell her that she has cancer too, of course, because the family talks and she will hear it, but I think perhaps the body wearing down could be the primary reason she's dying to a 7 year old.

Sharon, we are a faith-oriented family. I want to speak with my pastor about discussing this with Missy, too. I'm trying to think of all the avenues here. I know the questions are going to come in droves and many faith questions will come too.


Well-Known Member
Age is a good way of couching it.
When I got breast cancer, my kids freaked out because their grandmother died from breast cancer. So after my surgery, I showed them the stitches and told them that I was way too young to die and all the dr's did was cut out a small portion.


New Member
I would be careful not to equate old with dying. kids think 30 is old and you could end up making them fearful if they ever hear you or someone else say they are getting old. Say that grandma is very very sick. then talk to them about death in a natural non threating way. The key is to take the mystery out of dying. We fear most what we do not understand. There is a lovely book on this subject Occupational Therapist (OT) help children with death and dying it is called "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf" It is probably at your library but is available at also. I have used it myself and have given it to a few young mothers that found themselves in your position. It is a good way to get the conversation going.


Active Member
I went through this last year when my aunt was diagnosed with an always fatal, rapidly progressing disease. While we don't live near, my children were fond of her, especially my daughter. I told them truth as we found it out.

My children had a wide range of reactions with my daughter's being quite intense through those weeks, my older son's more matter of fact, and difficult child's with not much reaction at all. On the plus side my daughter has a strong faith and got comfort and assurance from there. She has a very merciful temperament and "felt" the sickness and death strongly. There were times when talking helped but there were also times when I cut her off from talking about it because I could see she was working herself up as a result.


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Well, LOL! it depends upon what you consider "old." My dad is 87 and when my kids found that out, they were shocked. Same thing with-a cousin who is 75 ... they thought she was 60. We've had lots of conversations about how some people seem younger and some older than their chronological age.
Of course, that only works with-older kids, maybe gradeschool age.


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You have been given great advice. My difficult child obssessed about death. I tried not to talk about it too much. I did mention someone was 'getting older' as a hint to what may be coming in the future. She was older than your kids though.

I am so sorry for your family and am sending prayers out to you now!


call 911

I thought back to when my father passed away. It was sudden and there wasn't any pain. He died from smoking cigarettes. As a human the pain came and the thought that I can't ask dad this or that. As a Christian the thought crossed my mind that my father could receive no greater gift or fulfillment of life than to be with our heavenly Father. IF you truly love someone you want them to be happy. There is no place on this earth he could have had that kind of happiness. Letting go didn't mean saying goodbye forever. I'll see him again someday.

When it came to telling my son, age 8 at the time I was all alone. As we boarded the plane that evening to fly to my Mom's home the skies were so beautiful, the colors were astounding and I felt as if I were seeing art work that my dad not bound to this earth had painted just to soothe me and my son. So I told him that. I told him that Pop had gone to stay with God. I didn't tell him Pop had sickness, heart attack or died. In a sense he really didn't die, he just went to go be with God.

My son cried because I cried. When we got to the funeral home he asked where Pop went, and I said....Remember the beautiful sunset and clouds? He went to Go help God paint heaven.
I figure the world will fill him in on death, dying and things like cancer, disease and the like. But to an 8 year old boy his Pop is in heaven painting things for God, and will be there for us when it's our turn to go to heaven.

As far as the get well cards? Why not? When you take away hope, from the sick what do they have to look forward to. Let them have their hope that she gets well. Their hearts are beautiful and I'm sure GGM likes THOSE cards better than something an adult tells them to create. If I were dying and knew it? A card like that from a child would certainly spark MY day. It would say to me - SOMEONE hasnt' given up on me - not yet.

I would say at their age until she actually goes to be with God and share her talents with heaven? Let it go. Kids have enough grief in their life today. My son doesn't remember anything about that day EXCEPT the beautiful clouds and painted sunset and that THAT was his gift goodbye from his Poppy.

The next time someone we knew passed away, he was 16 and he said.."What do you think HIS gift to heaven is Mom?" - 8 years later he still remembered.

Hugs - My depest prayers for your families understanding.



If Missy is anything like my difficult child...she will need time to process the information. My difficult child does not do well with change, he would be angry if I did not tell him. It's like he has to prepare himself for things. He may not show it, but I know from experience he needs to process information or he will lose control.

Sorry you are faced with this. Good luck.