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05/27/2009

Telling them Poppa died

MVgraveyard(2) A few weeks ago, I read When Grandparents Are Sick (a fabulous post by Mary on DC Metro Moms) and bookmarked it, thinking I certainly understood. After all, my soldiering-on-but-beginning-to-fail Father-In-Law was reaching the point where...well, the point where it looked like things were going to change for him.

And then things did change. He died.

Last week was a kaleidoscope of emotions and things to do - going through grief with your spouse is hard enough, but explaining death to seven and four year olds? Not great, either. And tricky. We talked a lot about how people can be so broken that even doctors can't fix them, and how Poppa had been sick for so long that things like walking and breathing were very difficult.

My son was shattered. Shattered. He'd always been close with his Poppa, and since we've lost a few family pets, understood the finality of death. But my daughter had no clue.

And since I've been spotty on her religious education, she wasn't as comforted by the 'God took Poppa to Heaven to live with him' as her brother was. We were astonished when she shook back her shoulders and wailed that we were so mean, that why wouldn't we let Poppa come back? and Poppa can't live with God, Poppa has a house here!

Clearly, we needed advice. I sent out a call for help over Twitter, but received the best advice from the funeral directer - a nice handful of pamphlets and a really spectacular child's workbook called Bye Bye...I Love You - with prompts and spaces for the kids to fill in their special memories.

We learned: NEVER to say that Poppa had gone away (or he's gone, as both my husband and I naturally say in conversation) because my four year old thought that gone away meant coming back, that my son needed to know why for almost everything, that their attention spans and grief levels were better if we talked for a few moments then let them run off and do something else for awhile. That snuggling and saying nothing was sometimes better than rehashing the whole thing again - but sometimes talking was the better choice.

We learned if we talked them through each ceremony step by step they would be fine. This was as blunt as saying 'Poppa's body will be in the coffin. It will be open halfway. You will be able to see him  People will go up to it and say goodbye. You don't have to go up if you don't want to, but your Dad or I will go with you if you want. A lot of people are going to cry. Some people will tell you stories about Poppa. A lot of people are going to pat you on the head or shake your hand. If you get tired, come find me and I will take you away.'

I wavered and wavered on if they would be helped or hurt by going to the funeral. After even the four year old was reassured during the visitation by seeing her grandfather in his coffin, we decided to let them both attend. Again, I went through the ritual step-by-step. 'Poppa's body will be there in the coffin, but it will be closed. There will be prayers, and people will stand up and say what a good man your grandfather was. There will be songs played, and then we'll get in the car and drive behind the hearse to the cemtary, where we will stand in front of the box Poppa's body is in. There will be a few more prayers, and then people will walk in front of us and say how much they loved your grandfather and how much they'll miss him. People will want to shake your hand or hug you. If you are sad or don't want to do that, come to me and I'll take you away. After we leave, the box will be lowered into the ground.'

They did well at the funeral. While I am by no means saying that their grief is over, I'm very proud of how well they absorbed what their father and I told them, and I'm so glad I had those pamphlets from the funeral home.

We are big believers in the idea that wherever you look, anything beautiful or shiny is a part of the person that is gone. That our loved ones are part of everything that shines is a concept first told to me by my mother, and explained in this children's book that I love so much I've been sending copies to people that have a death in their families. It struck a chord with my son, who spent most of the week following the funeral pointing out things and talking about his memories. Now he's keeping busy filling in his memory book - and has asked for some pictures of his Poppa in his bedroom, which we'll happily hang in a place of honour.


 This is an original Canada Moms Blog post. Jessica blogs at daysgoby. Photo by the author.

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