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Hawaii_Jake's avatar

How do you explain death to a teenager?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (30614points) April 13th, 2011

My ex-father-in-law on the US mainland is dying. He will probably not make it through today. My ex-wife is there with one of our daughters, and the younger daughter is here with me. The one here with me is 13.

She hasn’t spent any time with her maternal grandfather and doesn’t really know him. The distance has been too great, and the expense of flying too high.

What do I say to her?

She knows grandpa is very sick, and I’ve said that “it looks like he won’t get better,” but what do I say when it’s final?

We also have a son who’s 20. He’s taking it stoically.

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18 Answers

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

How has she reacted to the news so far?

Neurotic_David's avatar

Remembering back to my teenage years, I always wished people would just treat me like an adult. I may not have been old enough to be an adult—or sometimes even act like an adult—but I was grown up enough to handle being treated like an adult.

So I’d say just be open and honest with her, and don’t baby her about it.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@Pied_Pfeffer : She’s been quiet. When I told her that it didn’t look like he’d get better, she simply said, “Oh.”

@Neurotic_David : I hope I am treating her like a young adult.

wundayatta's avatar

My children are 14 and 11. We have had any number of discussions with them about what death is and what might happen after death (my wife and I do not agree on this, and the kids also have different opinions). They have seen me bawling uncontrollably after I went to visit my band leader and they took us to see his body. He had died only an hour or so before.

My advice is that you do the same. Talk about death as you see it and think about it. Share your feelings. Don’t hide anything. Share your feelings. I think the best way to teach them is by showing them what you feel, and how you handle it. If you are stoic about it or try to hide it from them, that’s how they will think it must be done.

I have, for better or for worse, always shared my feelings and fears about issues like these with my children. I don’t do it in a way that asks them to care for me. I am just sharing.

When my mother-in-law died, my son started weeping at the funeral. My daughter kept things inside, as did her mother and I. People feel what they feel. If they feel nothing, they feel nothing. If they want to be emotional, they should be emotional.

One of my closest friends dies this past year. We offered the kids a chance to go to the funeral, but they decided not to because it would be too sad. It was very sad and my wife and I were weeping as they lowered his coffin into the grave. Something about the symbolism of that is way stronger than I ever would have believed. It reminds us, I think, that death is very permanent.

If there are any rituals you might have—saying a prayer (even atheists can say prayers—it doesn’t have to be to a god) or pulling out pictures or calling relatives—whatever, share them with her. Even if she was 5, I would think she was old enough to participate. If she asks questions, answer as best you can. But I don’t think you need to keep anything—what’s happening to him, what you fear, what you feel, or whatever—from her.

marinelife's avatar

I would not go into a lengthy conversation about death unless she asks. I would just tell her when he dies and say that her mother is very sad to have lost her father.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@hawaii_jake Thank you for the additional information. A grandmother died when I was 12, and I was very upset. The difference between this scenario and your daughter’s was that I was close to Grammy.

If this is her first remotely close experience in having to deal with a death, and she really didn’t know him, her response is understandable. I agree with those that say to address it in a mature manner. If she has a relationship with her mother, explain it from the point-of-view on how her mom is feeling. Suggest that she reach out to her mother, be it phone or a card, as it will provide a bit of balm. It may also teach your daughter a lesson in empathy when it comes to understanding the circumstances that she cannot personally relate to.

YoBob's avatar

I’m not sure what there is to explain. At 13 she should certainly be acquainted with the concept of death. You have already informed her that her maternal grandfather is very ill. When he passes away simply tell her that he has passed away. Why turn it into a huge drama when there is no need to?

flutherother's avatar

If as you say she didn’t really know him, then his death probably won’t impact her very much. Just tell her in an honest matter of fact way when it happens. She may want to add her name to a condolence card, but I wouldn’t make a big thing out of it.

Seelix's avatar

I’m assuming that this is the first time the 13-year-old has had to deal with the death of someone close to her. In a way, I suppose it can be easier for kids if they encounter death at a younger age.

Of course she knows the mechanics of it – you don’t get to age 13 without knowing that. She probably just doesn’t know how to react to the situation, especially if she’s not very close with her grandfather. I would think that she may not feel too much sadness, because she’s not close with him, and maybe she feels weird about that. She might feel like she should be sadder.

That’s kind of how I felt when my great-grandmother died when I was 9. I knew what death meant, and her death wasn’t sudden or anything (she was 105!). When I found out she had died, I wasn’t really all that sad. I felt sad for my dad and my grandmother for their losses, but honestly, because I hadn’t spent much time with her since I was very small, and therefore didn’t really have any memories of her, it didn’t feel like much of a loss for me. Maybe she feels similarly to the way I did – it’s a strange feeling, and an even stranger one to deal with when you’re young.

I wouldn’t worry too much about it. When he passes away, let her know about it, and let her know what his medical problems were. Make sure she knows that if she has any questions or concerns about anything, that you’re there for her.

Will your kids be going to the funeral? Will you be going with them, or just their mom? If your daughter (and your son, for that matter) haven’t been to a funeral before, you might want to tell them what to expect. Funerals can be pretty scary if you don’t know what you’re in for.

I’m sorry your family is going through this – I wish you all the best.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Thank you, @Seelix . Yes, my son and daughter will travel for the funeral.

Thank you, everyone. It’s all helpful.

cak's avatar

When my father died, my daughter took it in waves. A small wave would trickle by, she would ask a question or two. A more substantial wave of emotion and we sat there talking about things.

I was very upfront about the news; however, the one thing we stresses, when it seemed necessary was, yes. Her papa was gone, but not all those wonderful memories. In our family, we look for memories.

Because of the distance, mileage and emotional, between them, it may be something she doesn’t know what to do with – just watch her for signs of stress and ask what she wants to talk about.

Many blessings, my friend.

BarnacleBill's avatar

I would explain the ritual of funerals to her, and what is expected of her in terms of how to act, what to say to crying relatives that she may not know very well. You might want to make sure that she can identify different relatives. Perhaps share stories with her about her grandfather, as much as you can remember about him. Pictures and stories are important.

“Hatch ‘em, match ‘em and dispatch ‘em” as our former priest used to say, is a common life continuum across all cultures. Understanding the different rituals and protocols are part of continuing society. You might want to talk to her about your own ideas about death, if you’re comfortable with it. Ask her if she has any questions, and ask her what she thinks about it all. Tell her what you think she can do to help her mother through the next few months.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Thank you, all. My ex-father-in-law passed away this evening. He was surrounded by loved ones. My daughter here understands and is sad, but we sang some of her grandpa’s favorite Smothers Brothers’ songs. It’s a sad time.

SpatzieLover's avatar

@hawaii_jake My condolences to you and your family.

anartist's avatar

A teenager can understand death. And the more she becomes aware of it with people she knows, the more she is aware of her own mortality and one’s place in the “ever rolling stream” that “bears all its sons away”

Seelix's avatar

@hawaii_jake – I’m sorry for your loss. I hope that your kids’ grandpa wasn’t in a lot of pain, but if he was, regardless of your beliefs, at least he’s not in pain anymore.

I wish you all the best and hope that the funeral isn’t any harder than it need be.

MilkyWay's avatar

You and your family are in my thoughts @hawaii_jake.

Pandora's avatar

I wasn’t close with my grandfather when he passed away. I was close to your daughters age. I actually didn’t know how to respond. I felt sorry for my dad but I knew my grandfather was sick for a long time so it was no surprise. I mostly felt bad about not feeling anything about it. Actually it was the same for all my siblings as well. We met him a few times but he was a stranger to us. If her relationship to him is that of a long distant cousin, than I wouldn’t worry. She may see this in a practical way. He was sick and when he passes he will no longer be in pain. Its hard to get emotional about someone you have no emotional attachment to.
I would just be honest about his passing and let the rest up to her. The only thing I will say about death, whether you were close to someone or not is that it can stir up fears of dear ones passing away. It will always remind us that everyone has a due date.

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