My 5 year old son recently started school and, his separation anxiety pre-dates school, but it has really highlighted to me just how bad it is. He gets upset when he gets dropped off at school, when his dad leaves for work, when family members visit and have to leave, when going to activities where we are in sight (e.g. gymnastics class where he could see s through the window). He starts with crying and saying he doesn't want to go to [insert place here], then he starts to breathe heavily and hugs you and then he starts to cling to the point where he physically has to be prised off, then when you've got him into school or his dad is going through the door etc it all starts again. I also have a 2 year old who copies everything he does so I am worried it will create an issue in her.

Thinking back, my husband and I feel like it started when his great grandmother passed away at the beginning of the year (we also lost our dog last year), at the time we explained it in very simple words - "Granny Anne has died because she was very old and sick and we won't be able to see her anymore. It's okay to miss her and be sad." We have also reassured him that we aren't going to die and just because someone gets sick does not mean they are going to die but he does still (9 months later) ask a lot of questions about death. He also talks - and sometimes cries - about our dog and his great grandmother which we encourage as we feel he is still processing it.

Unfortunately, we have just found out that his grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and its very aggressive so she could pass away fairly soon. We have not told him yet and while he has seen my husband and I upset, I don't believe his anxiety level has changed since we found out. I have contacted the school nurses and informed the school but they are taking a while to get back to me and as it is a time sensitive issue I decided to also seek advice elsewhere.

Mainly, how do we prepare him for the death of his grandma without making his separation anxiety worse? Should we take him and his 2 year old sister to visit their grandma when she is very sick? They last saw her nearly 2 weeks ago and she has rapidly declined. How should I broach the subject with my 2 year old?

Thank-you for reading through this very long explanation and for any advice you may give.

  • 2
    Hi Joanne, to start with I'm very sorry for the situation you're in with your mother (in law?). As far as your question - am I right that the focus of your question is around her, and how to help your son with regards to her sickness and eventual death? Or is the separation anxiety itself the main focus. It might help to split this into two questions ultimately, if the separation anxiety is a big issue on its own. I'm going to lightly edit this for now to focus on the main question that I see here, but if that's not exactly what you're focused on please adjust.
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 17:53
  • For the separation anxiety itself, I'd recommend a therapist or counseling or something to try to deal with it and figure out the root cause, etc. I don't think that's something you should take random stranger advice to handle. Dealing with imminent death of a loved one is a valid question that can have some good answers though. Unfortunately I'm not the one to have one.
    – user20343
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 18:25
  • @SiXandSeven8ths - I'm an interventionist by training and nature, and I recommend therapy almost at the drop of a hat. However, separation anxiety in a 5 year old is not something that (I believe) needs a therapist right off the bat, and I suspect many parents have dealt with it in one form or another. I'm hoping we can provide some help. Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 20:22
  • @anongoodnurse Fair enough. I only meant that OP should not take advice given here as an end-all, be-all for that issue since we don't know everything about it and could be better benefited by a specialist. The other issue OP has can be addressed in a meaningful way by people here who have been in that position. If that makes sense.
    – user20343
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 21:00
  • Sorry I was kind of rambling and confusing; my main question is how do I present the issue of my mother in law being terminal to my 5 year old that has separation anxiety which has originally stemmed from people passing away without making his anxiety worse.
    – Joanne
    Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 19:11

2 Answers 2


Based on your description, I can't help but feel that your son's primary issue might be the concept of death. Five year olds don't have a grasp on that (yet), the only thing that he can process is that Granny Anne left and he won't ever see her again. Even if he attended the funeral, he probably doesn't comprehend that GA's physical body was in the box they put in the ground. Or, if he saw it, he may not understand that she wasn't sleeping... so, consider not discussing death with the kids until they are a little older.

What I would recommend, for now, is that you discuss memories. You could say, "Hey remember those cookies Granny Anne used to make? Want to make some?". Or, "If you could say anything to Granny Anne, what would it be?" The same kind of discussions about your dog... "Do you remember (dog's name)? What was your favorite thing about (him/her)?" Openly talking about those your family loved and lost will help your children process their grief and become a positive exercise in self healing.

The situation with your Mother-in-Law is heartbreaking. Personally, I think your 2yo is too young to understand anything other than "everyone's upset and crying so I should cry too". I do think that it will help your son to be able to visit with her before she passes - if and when your Mother feels strong enough for his energy level. You might prepare him by letting him know that she's in the hospital and the doctor's are trying to make her "all better". Bring a coloring book and crayons as your son is likely going to give his Grandmother a hug and be done with the whole affair. But when she passes you will be able to remind him that he went to see her at the hospital (and you can talk about your favorite things to remember about her). These are all things that will teach your children that keeping memories of loved one's in your heart will make missing them less painful.

As for the seperation anxiety and clinginess... your son is probably (afraid, concerned, apprehensive) that when you leave him at school, or his Dad goes to work, you will "die" and he'll never see you again. (Does that make sense?) You can help him deal with the issue with (you guessed it) more talking. Be casual and don't wait for a time when you have to drop him off and everyone's nerves are stretched thin. Just like, your fixing him a peanut butter sandwich, say, "Hey (kid's name), I noticed that you get really upset when I drop you off at daycare. You didn't used to act like that. Did something happen?" He'll probably say 'no' - take it with a grain of salt, he might not have the vocabulary to convey how he's really feeling. If he does (say 'no') just reassure him that if he ever needs to talk about it, he can come to you. Then, if he starts having a tantrum when you go to drop him off the next day, remind him that if there is something wrong he can talk to you. If he doesn't spill it right then, tell him that he can talk to you (after dinner, while he's taking a bath, etc) when you get home. And then kiss him and leave. This puts you back in power. Instead of catering to a tantrum that is out of the blue and at the worst possible time (because it's always at the worst possible time), you have told him that you care about what he's feeling, given him a chance to deal with it, and reinforced the idea that you are still dropping him off.

Hang in there. I like to remember my Mother, who always said, "This too shall pass." -el


I came across your question, since we had a similar issue in our family. My aunt passed away after 3 months of struggling with terminal lung cancer.

Also my son (4 1/2) had a very close bond to her and we were wondering how we are able to present this whole mass.

Maybe our son has no separation anxiety at all but one advice I can share is:

Always tell the truth in a child-oriented manner. We told our son very early that my aunt is very ill and in hospital. We also told him she might die and he probably won't see her any more. In the end, sadly, we had to tell him she had to go.

Children are very sensitive and mostly know if something is going on. It might be an adult conversation or a telephone conversation etc., where kids get slices of information. Not knowing what's going on, kids would make their own story out of it and eventually they won't talk about it too, which is worse.

What I saw is, kids do have a very own approach to handle death and we discussed this (his) ideas and encouraged him with finding this view very beautiful. I still do not know where he got these (even funny) ideas!?

Maybe talking directly about these things even helps with the other issue.

I want to add that I am no professional. I am a father. Still practicing and trying to find out the best way of doing stuff.

Good luck

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