The doctors said my grandma would probably die within a week. My children didn’t know or see much of her in her healthier years, but that didn’t matter. Driving to the hospital with my three daughters on what would be the first of several visits, I decided they would know and see her now.
They said they were okay with these visits. But this experience was new to them — and to me. “She can die any moment,” my family had been warned by hospital staff.
“If she did die during our visit …” I’d start and stop the whole ride over, struggling to prepare my daughters.
We found her in a room with a bright window. My grandma was sitting in an elevated bed, her eyes closed. I called out “hello” several times and got no response.
“Is she dead, Mommy?” my middle daughter, then four, asked.
“No, no, she’s sleeping,” I hoped. “She’s just tired.” My grandma, perhaps hearing me, opened her eyes then and said hello.
Since my daughters were old enough to understand, we had talked about death because I knew it mattered. We talked about dead flowers and the robin chicks that a black snake ate while we watched from our deck. When they were older, and I became more courageous, we talked about my dad, who died before they were born.
We visited my grandma, I once told myself, because I wanted us to say goodbye, and to prepare my daughters for the loss of a woman who meant so much to me.
But with each visit, I learned our trips meant so much more.
“You’re not old, mom,” my four year-old would say confidently after what felt like every bedtime reading in the weeks leading up to my grandma’s eventual death. Though I did feel older, I agreed. “No, I’m not.”
“But your grandma …” she’d say, scanning my face, “she’s really old!”
“Yeah, she is.”
“But you’re not old,” she’d say again.
It would be quiet then. She’d stare more at my face, then say what I imagine she wanted to say from the beginning: “But you can’t die, right?”
At first, my answers to her were general, mostly focused on what I hoped could be the unemotional big truth I wanted to get across: That all living things die. Even though I knew it was more complicated than that, I couldn’t say more.
This went on for weeks, until I could really hear what she was asking. She wasn’t asking if I would ever die. She was prematurely grieving my loss. Yes, death is natural. But losing someone doesn’t always feel natural. I knew this from experience.
My dad died unexpectedly a year before my first daughter was born. Before losing my dad, I likened grief to traveling through a long tunnel by train up a steep mountain: once you finished the hard ascent, things would be easy. But it didn’t happen like that for me. Things did get easier with time, but the aftertaste of loss never went away. Ten years later, I still wonder “what if,” and I still cry sometimes (though those episodes are not nearly as frequent as they were). Grief, I’ve learned, is hard.
I wanted to protect my children from this truth, and shield them from being too sad. But reflecting more on my daughter’s question, I realized I also wanted to protect myself.
I avoided grief because it made me uncomfortable. I’m not alone in this. Kayce Hodos, a grief counselor in Wake Forest, N.C., says it’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from pain “Our culture as a whole finds the subject of grief very uncomfortable,” she says, adding, “We have to face the prospect of death and help our children find healthy ways to talk about it and cope. “
I worried that I wouldn’t do a good job of answering my daughter’s question, so I said nothing. But Amanda Thompson, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s National Health System in the District, says that it’s important to create a safe environment to communicate. You need to be honest and open about what you do and don’t know. “Death is a difficult topic,” she says, “and it’s okay to admit that.”
My daughter was afraid of me dying, and, I realized, so was I. But, Hodos says that while it can be painful to talk about things that scare us, doing so can “deepen familial bonds and foster resiliency, both in each individual and in the family unit as a whole.”
“Remember when you said you didn’t want me to die?” I asked my daughter during another bedtime. She nodded. I paused. “I want to see you grow and take care of you. And … I hope I will.” I said, suddenly realizing that this whole “experiment” wasn’t just about teaching her to say goodbye to my grandma, but also, one day, to say goodbye to me.
“So you won’t die?”
“No, I’m not saying that. I will die,” I said. She looked confused. “When I lost my dad, I was … very sad.”
She looked like she was going to cry. “It was hard … but,” I said, wiping away tears I didn’t know had fallen on my cheeks, “ … but with time things got easier.” She was quiet. “To lose someone you love … it’s hard. But I know you are strong.”
She looked at her arms. “Well … I can lift daddy’s weights in the basement,” she said.
“You’ll be okay. And no matter what, I’ll always be your mom. Like my dad is still my dad, like Great Gran will still be Great Gran.”
To my surprise, she smiled then and seemed to get it. So did I.
My grandmother lived longer than they predicted. We last saw her a week before her death. Her red painted nails were a stark contrast to the white of her bedsheets, nightgown and the window light. We all knew her end was near.
The morning after I got the phone call, I told my children.
“So she’s really dead?” my oldest, then five, asked.
“Yeah, she is. I’ll miss her. But … ” I started crying.
“It’s okay mom, she said. “She’s still your grandma. And you’re strong, remember?”
I smiled. I remembered.
Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We tweet @On Parenting and have a Facebook discussion page about parenting and working. Join us.