Living with loss. Hard for adults. Sometimes necessary for kids.
This last weekend my sister brought her daughters to spend some extra time together during this now-somber annual time for our families. We were talking in my kitchen and noticed an ambulance drive by my house, lights on but no siren. Then a fire truck and police car followed — again, lights on but no siren. The vehicles disappeared far down our street. At first we were alarmed, wondering if a dangerous situation was going down. Then I vaguely remembered something one of my other neighbors mentioned to me months ago: “I think one of our neighbor’s wives has been very, very ill,” I said out loud. About 30 minutes later, what looked like a hearse drove by and headed down the same street. My sister and I exchanged pained expressions and unspoken memories. Been there, done that. Two years ago the next morning, to be exact.
My own family’s conversations and first hand experience with death of a closely-loved one happened so much sooner than I wanted it to – when my girls were 5 and newly-7. My mom. Their grandma. Our most beloved and admired leader. Born on the same day she ended up leaving this life — an unconventional birthday gift she actually wished for in her final days.
At some point, all parents must tackle this delicate topic of loss with our children (as none of us get out of here alive).
Before we get deep, heed this disclaimer: I fully believe that no two deaths are alike — death of an aged person cannot be compared with death of a young person (a child losing his/her grandparent is not the same as losing his/her parent). I am not a licensed anything — not a therapist, counselor, educator (although my sister has a Masters in Early Childhood Education, whom I continue to pull wisdom from). All families, individuals and various ages deal with loss differently — there is no magic method to snap any of us back to living life as we knew it before grief.
I share my own perspective and ‘what I did’ here with sincere hope it might provide an idea, some hope, a bit of strength to someone who might be facing a situation like this and seeking insight for how to approach such a delicate topic with children….
When we first learned how serious everything turned with my mom, I decided to act swiftly and explain to my daughters what the heck was happening in the name of honest and fearless parenting. Everything happened relatively fast. I wanted to do it RIGHT, as I imagined the experience would create an imprint memory my girls would carry with them. How we handled things could likely shape how they view life, deal with loss and continue to live for the entirety of their own lives ahead.
Here’s the gist of what I said to my girls the first time I broached the topic, sitting on the floor in their bedroom: “Girls, Grandma is very, very sick. It’s not the kind of sick that we get — it’s not like a cold. She’s taken all the medicine she can take and it’s just not working like we hoped it would. I need to tell you that she might be going to heaven very soon…” I remember how big my girls’ eyes got. They were instantly shocked and distraught. “But we don’t want her to go to heaven now!” I nodded and told them that I didn’t want that either. We continued to talk about our faith, how bad things sometimes happen, how the rest of us are all safe, how God always holds our hands through the worst times. I was matter-of-fact (no severe tears from me during this particular first conversation) but was very obviously devastated. I gave them hugs — they were so little. They hugged me back. We continued school and activity schedules as normal (thanks to my husband and local family) while I traveled back and forth throughout the coming weeks. I emailed their teachers as an FYI — just in case either of them started behaving outside of their norm. My girls knew age-appropriate basics of what was happening, why I had to be away from home so much during that time — that I was helping my mommy (and, family) through something very difficult.
My girls saw her once during the time we learned of her reality — just before she passed. She looked good, was alert, asked them about school. They smiled and chit-chatted by her bed, but I could tell they were a little nervous. My sister took my girls to spend the night at her house that night.
My mom lost her battle the next morning. We told the kids a few hours later.
We sat them all down on the floor together and my sister said: “This morning, Grandma went to heaven.” They all looked at each other. I think one of them started crying. Another one started smiling uncomfortably (which is totally normal for a little kid to do when he/she doesn’t know what to do). I remember hugging. I remember tears. I remember feeling like we did it right.
In the next few days, we started preparing them to attend the funeral [closed casket]. We explained how, in our family/faith, people who go to heaven get a church service especially for them so we can all be together and pray together. I got some panicked pushback from someone close to us – pushback that frankly pissed me off. “Do you think that’s a good idea? What will you say if they ask what’s in the box [casket]?” I wanted to scream. “I will tell them that we believe in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and life after death. I will remind them that our bodies are temporary houses for our souls, which rise to heaven and out of our bodies after our bodies can’t work anymore.”
Why? Because we are filled with faith and say prayers when it’s time for someone to go to heaven. Because church brings us comfort. Because this is how our family copes — together. Because they were just old enough [at that point] and had a deep relationship with her. Because death is a part of life. Because I’m their mother, dammit, and I’m not going to cheat anyone out of properly saying goodbye to someone we love so much.
For a split-second, I second-guessed myself and checked with a child-psychologist about whether we were opting for the right thing. “Absolutely you’re doing the right thing,” she confirmed. “Kids don’t like to be lied to and they know when you’re hiding things – that’s when trust starts to erode, when you hide things from them that they really should know about. What you’re doing and how you’re doing this is RIGHT.” Whew. (I reported this back to my critic with what I’m sure was dripping with shameless ego.)
We bought all four granddaughters matching dresses for the funeral – in the spirit of Grandma’s ongoing tradition with them. We walked into church together. We listened to our priest. We wept with tissues in our hands. We were [acting] strong. We greeted family and friends at the cemetery. We spoke at the luncheon – kids included (each granddaughter wrote a few memories about Grandma and read their thoughts out loud in front of about 350 attendees). Our girls watched their mommies [gracefully?] handle the most unexpected and devastating experience of our lives. Hopefully they noticed, hopefully they will remember.
Death is a part of life. Not coping is not an option. It’s okay to cry and feel sad. It’s imperative to keep going, to continue traditions, to honor with simultaneous tears and smiles.
Here’s what I continue to do consistently with my daughters, to help us all cope:
Talk. We consistently chat about our memories with her — our Disneyland trips, our shopping trips, our beach days, that Hawaii vacation, pancake breakfasts in her kitchen, matching outfits, sleeping bags and/or pajamas she’d surprise everyone with every time we’d get together.
Cry. Yes, I cry in front of my kids when it is warranted — to show them I am human and that it’s okay to let emotion out and then get yourself together to continue living life.
Visit. Yes, we visit her final resting place from time to time. We grace it with flowers. We say a prayer. We spend a few minutes with her memory – there, in her new space.
Pray. We light our candles in church and ask God to take care of her ‘up there,’ we say our prayers at night to thank God that she was our Grandma/Mom.
Read. We get cozy and flip through My Yellow Balloon, a most treasured gift from a family friend. (My favorite book for small kids and loss. Yes, I weep every time.)
Look. I keep pictures out of her to remind all of us that, even though she won’t be visiting us anymore, she is still here with us — through what we do and how we live.
Cook. Each holiday and/or life event is accompanied with its own recipe and protocol that is reminiscent of her style and flair for hosting gatherings — traditional recipes for Armenian yalanchi (regardless if it turns out as expected), creative table settings and desserts for special occasions.
Fly. We send balloons high into the sky — to wish her happy birthday, to say hello, to make ourselves feel better. We look to the clear blue open above and are humbled by our angel watching over us.
ALL LOSS HURTS. (Even a few years later…) Teaching our children to cope with this not-so-fun part of life is a most twisted gift I wish none of us ever had to give. Yet, it is a gift that is solely our responsibility to deliver, in the name of raising our kids to be compassionately-connected, realistically-resilient and absolutely-equipped for anything life might deliver to them. Because if I were to stop time, stop joy, stop traditions and stop living in a way that would cheat my daughters out of love and appreciation for all of life’s trials and triumphs…. what a real, deep loss that would be. I thank my mother for teaching me this most rare and precious gift — to fight like hell to appreciate each moment and to teach my girls to do the same.
Happy Birthday, Mom. (We love you.)