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I Miss Grandma

August 16, 2010

Its been two and a half years since my mother died from Pancreatic Cancer. The first year was very difficult, with regular pangs of grief at the slightest hint of a memory. Birthdays and anniversaries were especially hard.

Year two was easier, as would be expected, I sill miss my mother hugely, but the occasional need to take time out to have a ‘moment’ is no longer there.

Now that I’m halfway through year three I am at a stage where I feel able to freely talk about my experience. It will still bring tears to my eyes and lump to my throat, but it’s also something I am now comfortable talking about.

What I didn’t expect was the strength of my daughter’s response.

I consider myself greatly blessed to have all my grandparents still alive to see me make it to my 20’s and get married. For me it meant that I got to know my grandparents as an adult and have my own relationship with them. I went to school with people who lost one or more of their grandparents at a young age, but I have no idea how that experience affects a young mind.

We were on holiday in Cornwall when Mum died, we knew it was imminent when we went; she had been unconscious for close to a week and I had seen her for what I knew was to be the final time. If we had been going abroad for our holiday, there is no question it would have been cancelled, but since we were in the UK and there would be nothing we could do anyway, my brother being on site with Mum.

It was early morning the second day of the holiday when my brother rang to give the news. Given it was expected, there was no initial strong reaction, just acceptance that the inevitable had happened and relief that Mum would be in pain for no longer.

The full affect for me would start to set in over the next few days and we eventually decided to cut the holiday short and head home a couple of days early. We delayed telling my daughter until we got home, to give her the chance to enjoy the brief holiday.

We were both treading into unknown territory telling a not quite four year old child that her grandma who had been sick for some time (we had not hidden Mums illness from her), had died and we would never be able to see her again.

There were tears of course, but it was not at all clear that the implications had set in.

It would be several weeks before I’d get the full response from her. It was bedtime and we were having the usual delay tactic game when she burst into tears for no apparent reason. When I calmed her down, she blurted out that she missed Grandma, and set off crying again, with me joining her. It was a very tender moment, but bedtime really isn’t the best time to enter into these sorts of discussions. I certainly didn’t want to have to endure her crying herself to sleep at such a young age over something so emotional. We talked about the fun things we had done with Grandma and happy memories we had. She cuddled the blanket that Mum knitted for her when she was a baby she went to sleep. I was knocked somewhat by it all.

How do you talk to a four year old child about death? Two years later and I still don’t know the answer to this. I’m not sure there is a simple answer; we deal with each emotional event as it comes. We haven’t got a long term strategy on this, I have no doubt we will talk about it all in more detail with her as she grows up, but hitting a 4 year old with the big questions of death hardly seems wise or appropriate.

We continued to get ‘I miss Grandma’ moments for much of the next year. At first we were concerned at how she was being affected, but raising the issue with her teacher and other adults she interacted with away from us brought reassurances that her behaviour was unchanged and we need not be overly concerned.

So it was just a home thing then. We used the opportunities to talk about Mum and how we all missed her. We reminded her that Grandma had been unwell and that sometimes when we fall sick we don’t get better and that sooner or later we all die. It sounds very heavy for a young mind but at the same time I don’t think overly sugar-coating the facts of life is healthy either.

One thing we did notice was that the tearful outbursts started to happen when there was fear of being disciplined. It felt to my wife and I that the ‘I miss Grandma’ chant was becoming a distraction tactic so that sympathy and a cuddle would result instead of the impending time out or bed without a story.

This required a change in response by my wife and I. We had to make judgement calls each time we had a tearful outburst invoking ‘I miss Grandma’ and respond in a more calm manner when we suspected the distraction tactic. It was harder for me as each time it happened all I wanted to do was hold my daughter tight to my chest and have a good weep. Our tactic in responding was to talk about the memories of Grandma and to not get distracted from the task in hand. For example, at bedtime, keep the routine going so that it was clear the distraction hadn’t worked. For time outs this was harder, but it was important that the punishment not get side tracked and avoided.

It worked, but it took some time, we had many discussions, about the tears and how genuine they were. It is extremely difficult second guessing the mind and motives of a four year old.

Confirmation and relief came a year later when a friends daughter, who is they same age as ours, started behaving in the same way following the death of a grandparent. We continued the tactic and eventually the distraction attempts faded and seem to have stopped altogether now. It took some time and effort for us to continue working at it.
 
Over the past year, with our daughter turned 5, we’ve had a very different type of discussion about death. Whenever mum comes up in a conversation my daughter will say something along the lines of ‘your Mum died didn’t she? That’s sad.’ It’ll be a matter of fact statement, with no default emotional response. Its very odd hearing a five year old talk like that and it tugs my heart every time. It makes her sound much more grown up than she really is and I can’t make up my mind if it’s a good thing or not.

Just when we thought that her mind was no longer processing the consequences of death we got hit by the hardest punch ever. It was tears at bedtime. Why is it always at bedtime?

‘I don’t want you and Mummy to die because I’ll miss you when you die.’

Ouch!

Seriously huge ouch!

I really don’t know how I managed to contain myself on that one. I wanted to weep.

Changing the subject is the current favoured response to this one. It hurts to know that your young child is already processing thoughts of your demise. I have to be utterly blunt and state that I really have no idea on the best way of responding. However, since this has only come up at bedtime, a time when you really don’t want to have your child pondering such negativities, we’ve taken to distracting away from it, tell her in no uncertain terms that it’s not going to happen for a long time, and then get on with discussion which story is going to be read.

The other thing that we get hit with on occasion, and this is the more regular one currently, is: ‘I wish God didn’t make me and the world because I don’t want things to die’. Her mind has obviously reached the conclusion that its better to have not existed that to experience the grief and pain of death.

When did my five year old turn into a philosopher?

Our reaction to this one has been firmer; we’ve made it clear several times that we don’t want to hear her talking like that. However, it does indicate to me that there are things going on in that mind that are deeper than I have given her credit for. At some point a discussion about death and grief must surely be inevitable. The challenge for my wife and I is when and how.

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One Comment
  1. adisasullivan permalink

    I miss Mom too, and Dad. But I believe that their life carried on through death, that they have moved on to “the better” and that our separation is temporary.

    Especially for my parents, their this-life shells just became too broken for them to continue living in them.

    They will get new ones that will never wear out.

    I gave my children the hope of the resurrection and if the natural progression of things takes place and I die before them I hope they will tell my grandchildren that I have just gone on ahead and in time they can come too.

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