My children’s last great-grandparent has died. I wasn’t sure what to say about it for some time, since I am dealing with my own emotions around losing my grandmother, but it seems like a good time to write about how we teach our children to say goodbye, and how important it is.
I was terrified of death throughout most of my life, until two retrospectively wonderful things happened to me. First, my maternal grandmother died, and I had an opportunity to visit with her in her final weeks, chatting the small amount that she was able, and being upfront with her, which she was good at. As I left her for the last time, I told her I loved her, and said, frankly, “Grandma, I’m scared”. She blinked her eyelids at me and I remember the softness of her hand on my arm. She said, “Me too, honey, but it’ll be all right.” Then I left. Two years later, I was fortunate to be with my family at my paternal grandfather’s bedside as he died. We knew his departure was imminent, and stood around holding his hands and talking to him. My grandmother asked him if he could hear us and he said yes. Then in a moment he gently exclaimed, “Well how ‘bout that!”, exhaled a slow last breath, and I watched as the colour drained from his face and then his hands. His hand slowly grew cold in mine, and he was gone.
Despite their morbid nature, these events were some of the most important of my life, as I was able not only to say goodbye, but to witness the surprisingly non-threatening simplicity of non-violent death.
My children’s experience of death really began with the loss of their various pets and livestock-pets, some shockingly and unexpectedly of heart-failure and by mink-attack, and some by euthanasia. All of these happened in my kids’ presence, and our son took upon himself the enormously brave and sad task of euthanizing his own beloved rat, who was dying of cancer. Mourning is a natural thing for humans to do, and seemed to require no guidance from us. I will never forget the beautifully long death-song sung by my preschooler-daughter as she instinctively picked flowers and laid them round and round the grave of her dog. Just shortly after helping to pile the dirt onto the body of her beloved Juniper, still red in her eyes from sorrow, she dealt with her feelings in her own perfect way. When humans die, there are often so many family members to consider that memorial services and goodbyes can be strange or inaccessible to children, but the death of pets is a somewhat easier way to involve them in the actual death and burial or cremation process.
Of course, it’s important to make our own personal goodbyes with humans, too. Three years ago my father died unexpectedly, and my first instinct was to rush my kids in to the hospital with me. They didn’t want to look at him, and neither did I – he looked like he had suffered, and his face was strained with what seemed to have been a traumatic death. To be honest, it was very hard. But my kids did look. It’s a big deal to see a real dead person and to discover that, while utterly heartbreaking to consider the loss of that person, it’s not actually scary. So when my grandmother died in January, I brought my son with me, and he had an opportunity to sit with her and to hold her hand, to see how small she had become, and to say goodbye. He remarked that it’s weird to say goodbye to someone who’s not there anymore, and in that alone he grew that day.
Death is an opportunity for growth. It’s important that we say goodbye when the person we’re talking to is gone, so that we feel the weight and the lightness of their absence, and begin to accept it. It’s important that we embrace these difficult moments so that we can live without fear of them. It’s important that we welcome death and loss and grieving as part of our every day, so that they don’t become burdensome. I still grieve for the loss of many people I love – some dead and some living. But that grief has to be a part of my living journey; not a curse to fear or hide from. I am glad my children are learning to say goodbye.
I was also able to arrange a special goodbye for our family, after my grandmother’s death. We spent many hours in her house – just the four of us. We played her favourite game and talked about her, my grandfather, and my father, who are all gone, now. We explored the house and looked at the many photos, the family tree, and some things and places that have memories attached to them. But we also did mundane things, like cook our lunch and do some studying at the kitchen table. We lounged around on the floor, adjusting our minds to the idea of our shifted family. We said goodbye in so many ways, and we pulled each other in, too, closing the gap left by her absence.
Mourning is a natural thing to do. So we make time and space for it, have patience for each other to do it in our own unique ways, and know we’ll find each other back again in love and dream and memory.