That Don't Look Like Grandma
By Sandy Goodman
When I was asked to compose an article about kids and grief, my pompous ego spoke up instantly with You can’t. Never one to argue with that soft, still voice in my head, I readily agreed that I couldn’t. After all, I usually only write about what I myself have experienced, and small children were never a part of my grieving. Jeremy was 22 when Jason died and Joshua was 18. I felt unqualified and incapable of telling others what they should say or do to help a bereaved child.
However, it is now three weeks later and I am feeling the need to write. I tapped out a few lines about grief triggers, a couple paragraphs about sudden versus anticipated loss, and a title for a piece about the first six months of bereavement. None of it felt right because my heart wants me to address that which I have avoided. Since that which we resist, persists, I see only one way out of this dilemma. I am going to talk with you about what I believe when it comes to talking with kids about death and dying and all that goes with it. But allow me to preface this with my own admission that what I am going to say we should do is not what I did.
Kids are more intuitive, more loving, and more compassionate than adults. But when a death occurs in a child’s life, we haul out the blindfolds and earplugs. We allow them to watch violent murders on television (because it’s NOT REAL), but we shelter them from deaths that occur in their lives. We fear they are not mature enough to understand, but I am here to tell you that maturity alone does not make death understandable.
I want to address this issue proactively, not reactively. Rather than looking at how to help a grieving child, I’d like to discuss how we can better help children understand death. What can we do, as parents and as human beings, to take away the fear and hopelessness that surrounds death? How can we give our children a different perception of death so that when they have their first experience of loss, they will have our shared wisdom to wrap themselves in?
If I had it to do all over again, I would have talked to my children about who we really are and explained over and over again that we are not our bodies. When they were very small, I would have questioned them about the place they came from, and listened more intently when they played with their “imaginary” friends. I would have told them bedtime stories about angels and guides, and taught them early to listen to the voice that whispered to their heart. I would have discussed feeling rather than thinking, and assured them that love is constant, never ending, and much more powerful than fear.
If I could go back in time, I would raise my children to know that death is not an end. I would explain what I believe happens when one’s body wears out or is damaged beyond repair. We would have talked about being met by Grandpa Joe or Aunt Gladys, and about white light and all of the exquisite colors we don’t have here in the physical. We would have talked about the unconditional love and unending laughter in the next place and I would have shared experiences that validate death as simply another stage of life.
When Grandma died, we would have all attended the services, not just the adults, because we would not have gone with the intention of saying goodbye. We would have gone to celebrate the life she had shared with us. When one of the boys would have inevitably remarked, “That don’t look like Grandma...” I would have said, “It isn’t.” Then, I would have explained that the Grandma they loved was free of her body, happy, and closer to them than she had ever been before. I would have told them they could still talk to her, and I would have listened to them when they spoke of her visiting them in their dreams.
If I had a chance to do it all over again, I would have stood at my son’s side as he left his 18-year-old body behind, breathing in his fear and breathing out pure unconditional love. I would have told him to fly free and to never doubt my belief that even in death, love remains. And lastly, I would have realized from the moment I looked into my first child’s eyes that our children are not given to us to “own,” but come so that each of us can know love. I would have known that they are never really “ours,” and that they may not stay as long as we hope. And understanding all of this, I would have done it all anyway, because the joy of the journey is so much more then the pain of an illusory loss.
I began this article with the intention of assisting in the never-ending job of parenting. I end it with this. Your children will give you more than you can ever hope to give back. Listen, come from love, and accept. They come bearing gifts, you need only hold out your hand.
Sandy Goodman is the author of Love Never Dies: A Mother’s Journey from Loss to Love (Jodere Group, 2002), and the founder and chapter leader of the Wind River Chapter of The Compassionate Friends. In May 2003, Sandy will lead a workshop at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) Conference in Washington D.C.