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First Person

Death's Hopeful Message: Grief Is Strong; Love Is Stronger

April 25, 2001|MONA GABLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was just before spring when their grandfather died. He was 79, a sweet and quiet man who had battled diabetes and whose heart finally gave out one morning at home. Our children had adored him. So now, in addition to my husband's loss, we faced the agonizing task of delivering the news to our 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

It was a moment that many in my generation are beginning to confront. Just as we're settling into parenthood ourselves, into thinking we have some passing idea of how to raise kids, our parents are dying, leaving us with not only the pain of their deaths but with having to convey to our children a terrible truth: People they love die.

Don was the only grandfather my children knew. Their connection to him was uncomplicated, pure. Jesse talked sports with him, discussed trades and pitchers and the various merits of the Dodgers versus those of the Angels. Kate loved to cuddle with him in his easy chair, to chat about her friends or her soccer game, or some funny thing our cats did. Don would listen, a look on his soft face of utter thrall, as though she were Vin Scully recounting a nail-biting steal at third base. His death would hit them hard.

As for how to tell them, I felt at sea. Should we wait until my husband, Joel, came home that night? Or should I talk with them after school? Far more daunting, how could we help them confront an event that many adults find overwhelming to grasp? Although I had lost both my parents years before, it was the first time my children had lost someone they loved. I dreaded doing something wrong.

Knowing they'd sense my sadness, Joel and I decided not to wait. After school, I gathered Jesse and Kate on the family room sofa.

"I have something I need to tell you," I began.

"What is it, Mom?" Jesse asked, his voice anxious. "Is it something bad?"

"Something very sad. You know how Papa has been sick, and how his heart wasn't working very well?"

They looked at me, their small faces alarmed. Then I told them.

My son seemed stunned. He cried a little, then wanted answers. What time had Papa died, and had Grandma been with him? Where was Papa now?

His sister burst into tears. "I didn't even get to say goodbye."

I cradled her in my arms, her tiny frame shaking, and tried to remember those perfect words I had planned to say.

I told them that although Papa had still found joy in his life, he hadn't been able to garden anymore, take his morning walk, do the things he loved. That as much as we would miss him, he was at peace now in heaven, watching over us.

My children dealt with their grief in their own way. My daughter phoned three friends, seeking comfort. Jesse said he didn't feel like talking and ran outside to play basketball. But he was hurting. Later, he told a friend about the frantic message his grandmother had left on our answering machine when my father-in-law stopped breathing.

Our most pressing concern was the funeral. My father-in-law was to be buried at a graveside service, in a closed casket. Should the kids attend? My husband called a psychologist we knew, Phyllis Rothman, who assured us that they were old enough to understand that death is a natural corollary of life.

Between 4 and 6, she added, children have far more difficulty. "The child doesn't yet have the idea of the permanency of death. There are a lot of questions: 'What is death?' 'Will you die?' It just opens up the whole idea of the life cycle." She also said it's important for children to have a loved one with them during the funeral--"someone who is just there with the child to help them understand what's going on."

The rabbi also gave us advice. The kids, he stressed, should know what was going to happen, that they were going to see a coffin, to see a hole in the ground. When they saw the coffin, we should not tell them, "Grandpa is asleep," but be truthful. And if the kids wanted to participate in the service, we should encourage them, but not push.

*

The funeral took place on a bright afternoon. The gathering was small, only a few close friends and family. The five of us sat in metal chairs by the hole in the earth, a soft wind blowing around us. The rabbi said a few prayers, then read tributes to Don written by various loved ones.

From Kate, a poem:

Hello, Papa. This is for you. And I hope you love me, too.

From Jesse, a letter:

Oh, Papa, I have so many memories that I cannot express on this paper. We all love you and miss you. Know one thing, though: You are in our hearts.

After the coffin was lowered, each of us tossed a red rose on top, then lifted a shovel and sprinkled dirt into the grave. Kate began to weep, and Jesse put his arm around her. Grief is strong, but love is stronger. This is what I hope our children have taken away from death.

*

A few nights ago, after visiting his mother, my husband came

home in a beautiful dark gray shirt of his father's, probably 40 years old. My daughter began to cry. My husband put his arms around her, and after a minute she quieted down. Then she looked up into his misty blue eyes.

"Can I wear the shirt?" she asked. My husband unbuttoned the shirt, then helped her slip it on. The garment fell below her knees. For the rest of the night she toddled around the house, a little girl in an old man's shirt, drinking in his memory. Later, she returned to the kitchen to say that she felt much better. When I asked her why, she smiled. "Because," she said, "I have Papa all around me."

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