Committing To Memory: Sharing Stories of a Loved One Can Help Ease a Family's Grief
“Remember the story grandpa told about the giant rabbit that could make gold and silver come out of his nose by tugging on his ears?” my youngest son asked recently. As if anyone could forget my dad’s original fairytale that he’d revived for a second generation — a mix of Grimm and gross that would’ve made Mother Goose squawk.
“Remember…” begins most references to my dad since he took his off-the-wall sense of humor and one-of-a-kind style and exited stage left. You know, when he brought down the final curtain, mailed in his warranty card, or, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquized, “shuffled off this mortal coil.” According to folks with psychology degrees, however, using euphemisms for the eternal vacation — alright, D-E-A-T-H — is a no-no, particularly for parents discussing the delicate subject with children. I kept that opinion in mind when it came time to tell my kids about their grandfather.
While it’s true that no one relishes being the messenger, parents feel cast as accomplices in the final kyboshing of childhood innocence. Every mother’s instinct screams, “PROTECT!” “RELIEVE!” “FIX!” Even so, little ones should be told the basics, because not knowing the truth is often scarier. They also need assurance that it’s OK to be sad or even angry.
When Dad died, my three children were in different stages of development, so my husband and I chose to talk with each one privately and allow for individual reactions without the mirroring of a sibling. At 12, our firstborn son understood the concept of death as much as any preteen, I suppose. He knew Grandpa wasn’t going to be at his next hockey game, entertain us anymore with outrageous made-up stories or appear magically in a beam of light and announce, “Only kidding!” (If you knew Dad, you’d understand.) We gently explained the facts: Grandpa’s heart had been weak — which my son knew because my dad had been in and out of hospitals for two years — and it ultimately gave out.
I braced myself for his tears, but they didn’t come. His dark brown eyes pierced mine, as if searching for the degree of my pain. I loved him fiercely at that instant. During the short silence that followed, I imagined that a montage of memories starring his grandpa streamed through his adolescent mind as he tried to process the life-reshuffling update. Finally, his barely heard, “Really?” gave the impression he was offering his dad and me one last chance to take it back. We told him we loved him and were always available to talk.
It was hard to predict how our little girl, with her 9-year-old frame of reference and emotional skills in transition, would react. Up till then, the fact that death will categorically claim everyone she loves was too dismal a consideration for my only daughter. To her, “forever” meant waiting for another birthday or a tooth to grow in. I’d prepared for her questions about what follows — about the casket or heaven. I figured these were the thoughts she’d allow in, the details and answers she’d want. Instead, her doe eyes brimmed with tears, and my brave, sweet girl simply hugged me, then her dad, and didn’t want to talk anymore.
When our 4-year-old son entered the room, his impish grin made my body go limp and the lump in my throat swell. Without an inkling of what was about to unfold, he somersaulted onto the bed like the monkey he’d always been. Knowing that at his tender age “death” was just a word like any other, I was caught off guard when his miniature body began to quiver and between gasping sobs his tiny voice shrieked empathetically, “What will Grandma do?”
To this day, all three kids speak of their Grandpa, even though I was sure the memory of their fleeting time together would eventually dissolve like a Polaroid picture. My daughter regularly assures me that her grandfather is watching over her, and occasionally, out of the blue, my youngest looks toward the sky and yells uninhibitedly, “Hi, Grandpa!”
I thought breaking the news of Dad’s death to my kids would surely break my heart in three. I’d planned to couch my children’s pain, yet astoundingly, they helped me cope with mine. All because they “remember when…”