Children Sit Bedside with "Great-Granny" by Akhila Murphy, End-of-life Doula
My mother Sharon Rose died in my home on April 3, 2022, she was 84 years old. My granddaughter Clare age 6 sat with her Granny in my home and gently held her thin hand the night before Granny died. Witnessing this tender time on the night before my mom died will always hold a special place in my heart.
When my grandchildren were told that Granny was dying, my 10 year old grandson wanted to visit her before she died. And so they came, not knowing this would be their Granny’s last night in her physical body.
When the children came to her room, they were not afraid. Somehow they knew to enter slowly and quietly. Acoustic violin music was playing in the background. I had told them Granny would look different than the last time they visited. They could immediately see something was different about her but, they walked right over to her bedside. Granny appeared to be sleeping, eyes closed, breathing with mouth open, and she was much thinner than the last time they had seen her.
I knew my mom was transitioning, which hospice defines as the time very close to death. I knew I wanted to be honest with my grandchildren, but I decided some of those words and concepts may not be age appropriate. I encouraged them to speak to Granny. That although she was weak and didn’t talk anymore, she would know that they were there. And so, they did. My grandson said he felt sad that she could no longer talk, because he’s “a very outgoing social kid and if I couldn’t talk it would be so hard.” Hecontinued talking to her.
They were both very curious and asked lots of questions. I explained it was ok to gently hold her hand and they both reached out to her without hesitation. At that moment Granny’s breath changed as she let out a long exhale. I said it was ok - she knows you are here. I encouraged questions and gave thoughtful answers, with just enough information and not too much. For example, they were amazed at being able to see the bones in her hands and, the very prominent veins. I explained she hadn’t been eating much anymore and she had lost a lot of weight. I felt it wouldn’t have been appropriate to explain about dehydration or that she hadn’t eaten in 4 days. These facts might be worrisome for kids their age.
The experience my grandchildren had may not be appropriate for every kid. Each child is on their own developmental level or may have had a negative experience in the past, so it’s best to offer kids choices whether or not to visit a dying person. Grown-ups tend to be uncomfortable talking about death, especially with children. According to kidshealth.org, a website dedicated to offering doctor reviewed information about kids health:“How kids cope with the loss depends on things like their age, how close they felt to the person who died, and the support they receive.” Use simple words to talk about death, listen and comfort. Tell the child what to expect and what events will happen next. Avoid giving too much information.
Books are a great resource for kids to learn about death and there are hundreds of books out there for all ages and all types of death experiences. A quick online search will reveal many age appropriate books as well as books for parental guidance in talking about death with children.
I feel most grown-ups are uncomfortable talking about death and even more so with children. I have heard dozens of stories from adults who share memories of a negative childhood death experience that has stayed with them all of their lives.Dying and death is an important time in everyone’s life. It is a time for love, caring, assistance, patience, and learning.
I know that being present during dying, death and after death can be healing to those who have negative memories. As an end-of-life doula I feel it is extremely important for people to open up conversations about death and dying well in advance, to normalize these discussions, and include children when appropriate.