There is no single person who has known me longer than my mother. From a cellular level – from the time God knit me in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13) – we have shared our lives.
On December 29th, my dear Gramma Ann, my mother’s mother, passed away unexpectedly. The woman who had known my own mother since she was no more than a spark is gone. Apart from my own loss, it is difficult to know how to comfort my mom. I don’t know the practical answer – I just know that my heart says to call a little more often, to pray for peace and comfort for my mother and her sister, and to love my mom the best I can.
The reaction that did require practical application was discussing Gramma’s passing with Paisley, my four-year-old daughter. Paisley attended the private family service for my grandmother, and I knew I’d need to prepare her in an age-appropriate way for what death means, where God is in the midst of loss, and for the very basic issues of viewing the body and respecting the emotions of those around her.
I sat down with Paisley to share with her that Gramma had died, and she was in Heaven with Jesus. I didn’t dramatize the details, and I didn’t offer a lengthy explanation. I asked her if she had questions, and initially she was more excited about the prospect of travel and visits with Nana and Papa than she was in the subject of Gramma.
In the days following, Paisley would stop suddenly to ask, “Gramma Ann is dead, right?” or “Gramma Ann is in Heaven? Can we see her?” I let her know that we couldn’t see Gramma now, but we’d go to Heaven someday to join her, and she’d be glad to see us.
The day of the family service, I prepared Paisley beforehand. She asked, “But why are people sad, mama? Gramma is in Heaven, right?” I told her that even though we were happy that Gramma was in Heaven, we would miss her very much until we saw her again. I reminded her that Gramma Ann was Nana’s mommy – the kind of fact she finds fascinating. Before and again after the service, we viewed Gramma’s body in the casket and I allowed Paisley to touch her hands and ask more questions. I reminded Paisley that this was just Gramma’s body, since the inside part, her soul, was in Heaven. She commented that Gramma felt “mushy,” and I accepted her thoughts without judgment. I was four years old myself when Grandpa Olie, my mom’s father, passed away. Somehow all these years later I still remember my fascination with the waxy feeling of his hands after death. It was important to let Paisley experience this event with her own feelings, in her own words.
It’s been a month since my grandmother died. Paisley doesn’t ask about her every day, but she occasionally says she is “pretending to be dead.” I don’t make a big deal of it. She has asked a few times about the casket. “Gramma is buried under the dirt, right?” Then I remind her that Gramma is in Heaven, and it’s just her body in the ground. Burial is an odd concept for a child to grasp, so I don’t discourage this kind of question.
Death is an inevitable part of life, and this has been an opportunity to help my daughter grow and learn, and a chance to talk about the serious side of faith. After all, I’ve known my little girl since she was just a spark, and we are going through this life together.
For more resources on talking to kids about death, check out Susan Wallace’s article, The Beginnings of Talking About "The End," in the February 2013 issue of MomSense magazine.