While waiting patiently for an hour with my mother-in-law to begin her second round of chemotherapy, I had a lot of time to reflect on how we talk about loss with our children. It’s important to me to share these experiences with my children so they can see how I handle it. I’m hopeful that they won’t be as scared of hospitals, funerals and death as many of the adults that I know.
When my father passed last Christmas, part of me was in denial. For two years I had known that he had congestive heart failure, but he didn’t look any different; he was still my dad! My daughter, now 19, was also attached to him like glue. Gabrielle, too, had a chronic condition as well as developmental delays. She instinctively knew he was sick and would not leave his side. They would sit together on the couch, he sleeping while she read books.
We had six months to prepare for his loss. I picked out books for Gabrielle to read, including The Two of Them by Aliki, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Busgalia and When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers. We read them daily. Gabrielle responded the best to The Two of Them, as it described a warm, loving relationship between a young girl and her grandfather. In the book when the girl becomes a young lady, her grandpa grows old and sick and she cares for him with the same amount of love he had always shown her as a child. We both liked that part.
It was important to me that all three of my children were there for him, just like I was, and their dad, too. What tools or experiences did I want to give my children in regards to the death of a beloved relative? How could I teach my children to grieve, to be part of the experience of helping their sick grandparent? Part of their learning was in observing me. And part of it was in how I accepted them and their feelings.
I want my children to have a healthy view of death. As hard as it was for me to see my dad die, the experience itself was healing, therapeutic and spiritual, and it was one I was glad to share with my whole family. I was able to help care for and provide comfort and love to a man who had done the same for me my whole life. Even though I was grieving, I still had to be a mom. I still had to meet my children’s needs, and learn to accept that they might grieve differently than me. I had to be patient.
To help prepare my sons, who were 14 and 10 at the time, I encouraged them to talk, draw or write about their feelings or about the special times they shared with my dad. After he died, we shared our favorite memories of him. We also made a collage of pictures of our favorite moments with grandpa and hung it in the hallway of our home. Through activities like these, I hope that my children will learn to honor their feelings, including their sadness. But I also want them to rejoice and be glad that a loved one is in a much better place. I want them to celebrate their grandparents.
Although I am cautiously optimistic about the outcome of my mother-in-law’s treatment, I know my family will need to be prepared for whatever may come. Just showing up daily and being present with grandma has been important for all of us, and I can trust that this is something we will go through together, supporting each other.