We’ve shared a little bit that we’ve lost several loved ones this fall. My great-grandmother and Jake’s grandmother both passed away, and one of our close family members had a miscarriage. It feels weird to put these losses in a list-like sentence; the full impact of each can’t be conveyed when talking about them all at once. At the same time, it has been difficult to feel each event separately because all three losses occurred in the span of a month.
Needless to say, this has been very difficult on our family. Jake and I are not very good at expressing our feelings, so there’s been a lot of ice cream involved. We’re definitely not experts on dealing with grief, but we excelled at one of the hardest things we had to do after loosing our loved ones: explaining death to Eliza.
Jake and I like to talk about parenting “what ifs” so we’re on the same page and can really think out our decisions. Eliza is five and Jonas is not even one yet, but we’ve had conversations about dating rules, what to do in the event our kids are getting bad grades in school, how much of their college tuition they should have to pay for, how we’re handling the birds and the bees, and how we plan to handle sibling conflicts (house court: we’re a constitutional monarchy). We’re prepared for a lot of the curveballs parenting will throw at us.
What we weren’t prepared for is how to explain to a five year old that she’ll never see her Grandma, someone she was making tortillas and gardening with just a few weeks ago, again. Or how to tell her that she’ll never get to meet the baby cousin she was so excited about. Or how to explain to her the impact of the death of a Grandmother with Alzheimer’s, who hasn’t been able to recognize Eliza for as long as Eliza’s memory goes back, makes on those of us who can remember what she was like before the dementia.
Honestly, Eliza took these deaths much better than we thought she would. She knows about the long term impact death has, because we talk to her about Grammy, who died when she was a baby, all the time. We tell Eliza stories about Grammy so that she will know about her even though she won’t remember knowing her. She’s also watched quite a bit of grown-up television (she’s a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bones) in which death is a common theme. So she was at least familiar with the concept. (I think that death themed television and stories prepared Eliza, but letting a child watch something of this nature soon after the loss of a loved one could prompt confusion and could trigger feelings in a big way.)
Explaining the miscarriage was the most difficult, because she didn’t know that babies could die before they’re even born. The emotions hit first: “But we didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl yet!” and “I love the baby and miss the baby even though I didn’t get to meet the baby.” Then she asked questions and tried to understand: “Why did it happen?” We don’t really know. Sometimes, early on, everything with the baby doesn’t match up quite right and the body knows that the baby couldn’t live if it were born. “Does it only happen early?” No, sometimes it happens later. Sometimes doctors don’t even know why. “That’s awful.” Yes. “Will there be a funeral?” No, there aren’t funerals for babies who aren’t born yet. “That doesn’t make sense.” No, it doesn’t. “Why didn’t you tell me this could happen before?” People don’t like to talk about it because it makes them so sad. But it happens sometimes, even to other people that we know. One of your grandmas had a miscarriage. “But we talk about other people who have died so we can remember them, why don’t people want to remember the baby?” I think it is because there aren’t very many happy things to remember. When someone you know dies, you can talk about all of the great things you did with them, what they were like, and things that they said. You can remember good things. But it’s harder to remember a baby, because the good things are so tied up with the painful memories of loosing the baby. “Can I ask my grandma about the memories she had of the baby she would have had?” Yes, but it might make her really sad. But it might feel good for her to talk about it too, because people don’t get a chance to remember lost babies very often. “Okay, then. I’ll ask her first if she would like to talk about it.”
With her grandparents, we could prepare her. We could tell her that her grandmothers were sick, that they would look different than they usually do.
The grandmother on my side, Grandma L., was Eliza’s great-great-grandmother. Eliza was sad and snuggly when we told her that her grandmother had passed away, but E didn’t want/need to talk about it very much. Because Grandma L. had Alzheimer’s for so long, Eliza didn’t really have a chance to know her. The last time we went to visit her, she was doing very very badly and was on hospice. I could tell that, even though we prepared Eliza verbally before hand, it was awkward for her. It is hard enough to know what to do around someone who is dying as an adult, it’s no surprise that it also is for a child. The funeral was out of town, so we didn’t have a chance to go. I think Eliza was more comforting me than the other way around.
The grandmother on Jake’s side, Grandma A., was Eliza’s great-grandmother. Grandma A. lived in the same neighborhood as Jake’s parents, so Eliza saw her about every other weekend for long periods of time. They were very close. Grandma A. got sick very quickly, so we felt it was important to prepare Eliza when she was put on hospice. Eliza, we’re going to go see your grandma. She’s very, very sick, so she won’t look like she normally does. She might not be all of the way awake. “Are we going to the hospital?” No, we’re going to Grandma A.’s house. “Why isn’t she at a hospital or with the doctor?” The doctors are coming to her. She’s not contagious like you are when you get a cough, it’s not something that they can fix with medicine. “What kind of sick is it then?” When you get older, your body just doesn’t work as well. “Why isn’t she in the same kind of place as Grandma L.?” Grandma L. had to be in a nursing home because she didn’t always remember what was going on around her. If she forgot something, it could be dangerous. She could get lost or hurt. “Like the time she tried to jump out of the car because she thought Grandpa was kidnapping her?” How did you remember that story? Yes, like that.
Eliza paused and looked at the ground, shaking her head sadly. What Eliza? “I’m sad for the day.” What day? “The day that Grandma A. dies. But we all have to die someday.”
She was very upset when we told her that Grandma A. died, but she was mostly upset that Jonas won’t remember her. “Jonas won’t get to remember Grandma A. just like I don’t remember Grammy!” But, Eliza, Grandma A. knew and loved Jonas just like Grammy knew and loved you. And you can tell Jonas all about Grandma A. just like we tell you all about Grammy, so you can remember her with him. “I think that will be good.”
Eliza asked a lot of questions about funerals, wakes, and what happens. She really wanted to know what the wrong things to say were, because she wasn’t sure what could make people sad or upset (she at one point wanted to replace the word “dead” with a cut-across-the-neck motion, but we told her that people usually do that to be funny so it isn’t exactly appropriate).
She also drew art at school. Encouraging kids to express their feelings through art is a great idea, we think (even though we weren’t the ones who thought of it). I like that Jake and Eliza are holding hands in the picture, and that Jonas kind of looks like a puppy.
Again, we’re not experts on this. Talking about death with kids depends on so much: how close they were with the person, if it was sudden, how old the child is, if they have previous experience with death or trauma… but I did think that talking about how we handled these conversations, as well as the kinds of questions Eliza asked, might help someone in a similar situation.
If you have tips, especially for different age groups, leave them in the comments section. I’m sure someone will find them helpful and special. Talking about death is often taboo in this culture; we think that breaking that taboo knowing others have shared experiences is a great way supportive of others.
P.S. Jake found this site helpful.
P.P.S. All of the Eliza quotes are things that she actually said, though I’m sure I’ve edited out tons of “and stuffs”, “you knows” and “likes” (she kind of talks like a teenager sometimes).
Let’s Get Serious is a blog series where we share our opinions and put ourselves out there. We get that not everyone thinks the same way; the same things don’t work for everyone. These are our opinions. They don’t have to be your opinions. We’d like to hear about what you think, but please don’t be mean to us. Let’s respect each other and talk about it!
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