In the hours after his beloved Gramps had passed away at the all-too-early age of 68, my five-year-old son, Jake, asked the question on everyone's mind. What would Grammy do without Gramps? What would any of us do without Gramps?
In his struggle to make sense of his grandfather's death, Jake has laid bare many seemingly unspeakable truths -- about love, loss and life itself -- for our family to face. He has helped us see more clearly just how much we do not know, and how asking questions is at times more important than trying to have all the answers.
Jake's journey has been a gift to our family. While we have been equally as inspired, mystified and taught so much by our daughter (7), Jake has been so incredibly verbal through this process that I chose to focus on his story. Interestingly, my highly verbal daughter has expressed herself more through art and other ways than with her words.
My hope is that some of the wisdom from the heart of this boy will resonate with you or someone you love.
"Is Gramps going to die?"
The day before Gramps actually passed away, my wife and I sat our kids down and had one of the most difficult conversations I've ever had. My friend Donna, the director of The Children's Room, had given us a few very key pointers, but for the most part we didn't prepare much. The plan was to keep it simple and concrete, reassure them that all of us were okay, and not to try and hide our emotions.
We explained that Gramps was very sick, as they'd known for many months, and that no matter what the doctors tried, no matter how much we loved and prayed for him, he was not going to get better.
"Is Gramps going to die?" Jake asked immediately. My wife and I looked at each other. Probably for the first time in this difficult journey, my wife definitively faced this awful truth.
"Yes, Gramps is going to die." We both shed a few tears, then she continued, "We don't know when, but it's going to be soon because he is so sick."
"Grammy, what are you going to do without Gramps?"
The next evening, my wife, my mother in-law, and I were with Gramps all night. He passed away as the new day began. Driving home from the hospital knowing the two little faces who would greet us at the door was almost unbearable. Again, we gathered everyone together and told the kids simply, sadly that Gramps had died and gone to heaven.
Keenly attuned to her distress and sadness throughout the day, Jake's natural instinct was to try and comfort his Grammy. Soon after our family meeting, seemingly out of nowhere, Jake asked, "Grammy, what are you going to do without Gramps?" At the very moment we adults were reeling in the silence of our grief, Jake's words seemed to turn us gently back towards or deeper into our own hearts.
Later that day, Jake asked Grammy if he would still be getting Gramps' train set. Yes, she said. Momentarily delighted that he'd been anointed to carry on the family tradition Gramps had started -- setting up the tracks around the Christmas tree -- Jake quickly grew quiet. As if suddenly realizing that his gain was going to be Grammy's loss, Jake said to her, "I'm going to make you a train set Grammy."
"Don't worry Grammy, I'll take care of you."
The day Gramps passed away seemed to go on forever. That evening, Jake repeated his question from earlier in the day, asking Grammy what she was going to do without Gramps. Before she could answer he said, "maybe you can get a new husband?" Though he was quite proud of his solution to Grammy's sadness -- and his own -- Jake seemed to understand it wasn't going to be so easy. We praised him for caring so much and gently explained why Grammy, or any of us, wouldn't want to replace Gramps.
Jake sat quietly, perhaps letting the reality sink in that Grammy would not be getting a new husband and he would not be getting a new Gramps. "Don't worry Grammy," he then said, "I'll take care of you."
Jake is no different from any other male, child and adult alike, in that he is innately an emotional being, fully capable of experiencing and expressing a wide range of feelings. The question we're asking ourselves as parents is, "how do we help this boy stay connected with his own heart, with himself?"
"Can we bring flowers up to heaven and give them to Gramps?"
On the evening of our first day without Gramps, I read the kids a fantastic book, When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death. One section of particular interest to Jake explained how when someone dies, their body stops breathing, they no longer eat, sleep, awake, etc. In other words, it's explicitly concrete about what happens to the body after death.
I then fumbled my way through an explanation of how we believe that Gramps' soul and spirit goes up to Heaven. Struggling to wrap his head around my less-than-stellar explanation of Heaven, Jake asked, "Can we bring flowers up to Heaven and give them to Gramps?"
"Grammy, I'm sorry Gramps died ... He's happy in Heaven"
In the days before Gramps' passing, we bought Jake and his sister sketch pads and colored pencils. Finding creative ways to help our children express what's going on inside of them and make sense of what's happening around them, has been a major priority.
By exposing them to a variety of mediums -- reading, talking, listening to and playing music, drawing, painting, building, making -- Jake and his sister have each found their own unique ways to communicate and express themselves throughout these difficult times.
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