Q: My granddaughter, a toddler, soon will lose a wonderful grandmother to terminal cancer. "Nana" lived with her family until recently when she had to move to another relative's more convenient housing. As "the other grandma," what do I tell her after the death of this beloved grandmother?
-- A Concerned Grandmother
A: Children need heartfelt connections to loved ones and guidance about how to grieve, not explanations about death. Even though a person dies, the relationship still lives.
As always, a loving mother's insight offers the most meaningful answer: "Above all, let her know, and show her, it is OK to be sad and cry." The Atlanta, Ga., mother's letter to "Parent to Parent," nearly in full:
"Our son had been around his 'PaPa' nearly every day from 2001, until he passed away in July. My father's battle with leukemia was obvious to my son. He would ask questions all the time, and we just tried to be as honest as possible without using big words that would scare him.
"Our son was about 2 1/2 years old when my dad had radiation therapy for the first time. That was the worst by far. We were all worried about how our son would take it, but he would scribble Get Well pictures, and peek in to say hi. They were the light of each other's worlds.
"In May 2004, my father's illness started winning the fight. He was in and out of the hospital, and we even celebrated his 60th birthday in the hospital room. A few days after that he came home, and my son would go spend at least a few minutes every few hours in his room with him.
"Ironically, the day before my dad passed away, my son asked me if the doctors were going to make PaPa better again so that he could play with him. I told him that PaPa was sick and that there just wasn't any more medicine to fix his kind of sickness. Then he asked that if PaPa doesn't get better, won't he die? I said, 'Yes he will, but that just means that now instead of him having to lie around in his bed, PaPa will get to run and jump and play and even fly, because now he is your guardian angel.'
"We lost my dad on July 14, just 10 days after his birthday. The viewing went well. We took my son into the room, and when we got to the casket he just looked down and said, 'Hey, PaPa.' Just like that. Then he turned his head into my shoulder and cried for a few minutes. The funeral was OK too, even the burial.
"My son was 4 at the time my father passed. My advice would be this: The family knows the child and how well the child can comprehend things. Explain it simply, so that they can understand it. Don't use a lot of details. And above all, let them know, and show them, that it is OK to be sad and cry.
"My son will still ask me if I miss PaPa. I tell him, 'Yes, I miss him.' Then he'll ask if I am sad that he had to die, and I say, 'No, because I know that he is up in heaven looking down at us and protecting us.' Finally, he says, 'I'm not sad either. I'm happy 'cause he's not sick anymore.' "
The mother and her son talk about their memories of PaPa and have created a scrapbook to honor him.
At about age 6, a child can begin to understand that death is permanent. But learning about death doesn't start and stop at any magic age. The issue is not black and white, cut and dried, and the topic of a beloved grandparent will come up again and again as the child reaches different stages in her development.
No matter your child's age or stage, start where she is -- what's on her mind? Any explanation of death varies with each child and should build on her life's experiences, grief experts say. When children are honestly told about death and allowed to talk about a deceased loved one, it becomes another fact in their lives.
Can you help?
At what age should a child absolutely not share a bed with a parent of the opposite sex?
-- A Reader in Loveland, Colo.
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