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WHEN IT'S TIME TO CONFRONT GRIEF

Q. My husband has cancer and has been given about one year to live. We have three grandchildren living with us, ages 4 to 9. How do we prepare them to accept their grandfather's death?

-- A Grandmother in Texas

A. In a hush-hush home, little is said about a dying grandmother. For years, a granddaughter is left alone with her grief.

In a more open household, two young sisters find their own unusual way to unlock their sadness: They play funeral. Their terminally ill grandpa willingly joins in as the guest of honor.

"It's important to allow children to confront their grief issues in their own time with the support of adults letting them know it's OK to talk about death," says Jan Houghton of Griefbusters in Amador County, Calif., a bereavement program for children 3 to 18.

Uncertain but uncensored on their journey of grief, kids will lead the way with their questions.

"They will have questions that both grandparents can share in answering," Houghton says: "What is it like to die?" "Does it hurt?" "Will we get to see you again?"

In small doses, answer each child's questions honestly as they arise, and expect different concerns at different ages.

"Whatever's going on, tell the truth," says Jerre Cory, co-author of "Helping Children Grieve and Grow" (Compassion Books, 1998). "That's probably the hardest thing for adults -- to figure out how to tell children the truth in words they can understand."

Tell the kids: "Grandpa is very sick. He has cancer. Not everyone dies from cancer, but Grandpa will," Cory suggests. To be clear that death is permanent, use the word "die" instead of a phrase such as "We're losing Grandpa" that might send a 4-year-old on a search mission.

Reassure the children, Cory suggests: "We're going to go through this journey together. We'll all have different feelings and we're going to talk about it when you need to and when you want to."

Remind your grandchildren they can come to you at any time with more questions, suggests Jim Emswiler of Connecticut, co-author of "Guiding Your Child Through Grief" (Bantam, 2000).

"If you don't give them honest answers, they'll fill in the blanks themselves, and that can be scary," he says.

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