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Goodbye, Mom and Nana

Today's blog is bittersweet. As I've written before, I've long wanted my mother's suffering to end and for her to die. Well, that day has finally arrived.

Two months ago, when the hospice nurse told us she thought we were looking at less than two weeks, I sat 7-year-old down to talk about Nana. I told him that it was looking like the grandmother he's only known in pictures and my stories would die soon. He looked at me with a serious face and said, "That's sad, Mama." Several days later, he asked his questions: "Does she look sick?" "Will her skin be on her bones when she's in the ground?" "Will the box she's put in become dirt?" (He'd been learning about fossils and earthworms at school.) He seemed to like seeing the one photo we have of Nana holding him when he was a baby. He said he wishes he had known her, even though I explained that she wouldn't have known him given her illness.

I waited longer to tell 5-year-old. His main, sweet, response on the day she died was that she's still in my heart.

I've always been honest to the boys about my mom, telling them through the years that she was sick and wouldn't ever get better. But it's hard to know what that means to little kids.

My own childhood memories of death are few. Only two of my grandparents were alive by the time I was born. My one living grandmother died when I was 7. My sole memory of it was that she died on our family's moving day. We flew from Boston to our new house in Florida, only to enter the house as the phone was ringing with news that her decades of fighting cancer were over. We picked up our suitcases and drove back to the airport and returned to Boston.

How have you explained death to your kids? When did you deem them old enough to attend funerals?

Note to readers: I'll be taking some time off; Brian Reid will be filling in while I'm away.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  January 30, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Relationships
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Wow Stacey, anyway you slice it that's really difficult and the long illness doesn't change how much you will miss her! I'm sorry for your loss - take care of the kids, but don't forget to take care of you too.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | January 30, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

My condolences, Stacey. Don't forget that as hard as it is to lose your Mother, it's not wrong to also feel relief that she is no longer suffering.

When I was 6, my great grandfather died. He was a grouchy and eccentric old man and didn't like very many people in our family - but he liked me. My Father would take me to see him and he would hold me on his lap while I ate homemade biscuits topped with fresh honey from his bees. His death, combined with some other (awful) things that happened to me as a child, has resulted in a struggle for me well into adulthood with severe separation anxiety and difficulty opening myself up in personal relationships. I have been in therapy for these issues off and on for most of my life.

I say all this to say that if the kids seem to be more impacted by this death than you think is natural, please get them into counceling now. It is so much easier to deal with these kinds of issues from the get-go than to try to dig them out thirty years later.

Posted by: VaLGaL | January 30, 2009 7:47 AM | Report abuse

I highly recommend "The Fall of Freddy the Leaf" for kids around 6ish. It's a Buddhist take on the circle of life, but really it's appropriate for any, all, or no religion. My parents read it with me when my grandparent died, and while I don't remember my reaction to it at the time, I do remember often going back to that book on the shelf and finding it comforting when I thought about my grandmother.

My condolences.

Posted by: mlc2 | January 30, 2009 7:54 AM | Report abuse

My condolences, Stacey.

My paternal grandfather died when I was three, so I never really knew him. My paternal grandmother died when I was 15, and no other extended family members died until I was adult. So I never really had to deal with death at a young age.

Neither did my kids, really. None of their relatives have died, but as they've become teens my kids have had to learn to deal with friends dying. Two of oldest DD's classmates have died (motorcycle wreck, and skull crushed with a bat during a fight); three members of the class a year ahead of her have died (two in car wrecks, one from leukemia). It's tough for them to take, even as teenagers.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | January 30, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

Stacey - so sorry about your mom. I lost my mom in November and it was really tough, and especially tough on my boys.

I'm curious, though. Have your children never seen their grandmother?

Posted by: jjtwo | January 30, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Sending you my sympathy Stacy. My girls were 5 and 7 when their grandmother died (my stepmother). We flew out to see her in hospice but did not go out for the memorial service. We keep a picture of her on the refrigerator. I continue to get occasional questions about her death and I expect that will continue as they get older. I just take the questions as they come and don't pretend to have all the answers! Their paternal grandfather is very ill and they'll be seeing him this weekend. I expect that will also lead to some questions.

Posted by: annenh | January 30, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse


My sincerest condolences. My mother died in Oct. 2007. The kids were 4 and 6. We took them to the family viewing. It was open casket and they had many, many questions, which we answered as honestly as possible. My 4 year old literally tried into the casket to give her a hug. It was sweet. They also went to the funeral and graveside. They did fine. I still get questions (at the most random times) but I am glad they went to those things. I think it helped answer a lot of questions.

Posted by: MomTo2Kids | January 30, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

My condolences. I understand the pain and relief at losing someone who spent so much time suffering.

I was 7 when I attended my 1st funeral. It was for my great-aunt, who we visited often. We are Jewish, so the funeral was held the day after she died. I remember my father staying by my side (I had asked to attent), while my mother visited with family, since it was her aunt.

Ultimately, the most comfort I've found in death rituals is usually paying a shivah call. If I remember from prior posts, you're Jewish, but for those unfamiliar, there is traditionally a week of mourning after a death, where the immediate family receives visitors, and can start to absorb the reality of the loss. As a kid, it was proof of how loved someone was, whether it's the deceased, or the survivors. It was a chance to hear other people's stories about the person, to visit with friends or family not seen often, to eat too much cake, and to realize that it's ok for an adult to cry. Your kids may now have known their grandmother, since it sounds like she wasn't there in spirit anyway, but they may really appreciate meeting some of her friends. It might help them understand why you're sad, and that lots of people loved their Nana.

And now, since I"m 6 months pregnant, I'm crying at my desk. Your little one was right, she will always be in your heart.

Posted by: JHBVA | January 30, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

When my oldest was about 4, our dog died. He definitely knew what was going on, and had tons of questions. It really hit him harder than we thought it would, and looking back, we should have probably realized that and spent more time discussing it all.
My mom passed away well before I was married, and my (now) almost 7 YO kind of is starting to get the whole - who is my DH's parents, who is my dad, etc. Then he starts asking me about my mom, and it still makes me cry. We tell him that she is no longer with us, that she died years ago, etc. I think he's starting to understand all of this. So we have not yet had any funerals to attend with the kids.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | January 30, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Stacy, my condolences on the death of your mom.

We've not had any relatives die since my 3yo was born, but our 5-year-old dog got sick and had to be put down this fall (I gave birth to our daughter 4 days later). To try and explain the concept of death to our 3yo son was difficult. Yesterday, we found a frozen mouse in our garage that had died.

I try to be matter of fact, acknowledge it's sad, but also a part of life. When we talk about people, I say, most people don't die until they are really old (our 3yo still has all his grandparents).

I guess, like other parents, you wonder if you are doing and saying the right things.

Posted by: goodhome631 | January 30, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Stacey, let me add my condolences to everyone else's. May her memory be for blessing.

Between Dec 2003 (when my kids were 10 and 6) and Dec 2005 we lost my mom, my MIL, and both of my husband's grandmothers. So my kids are all too familiar with death. They were at all four funerals. The younger one was sad mostly because he saw everyone else being sad; the older one was more cognizant of what was going on.

The only thing I can recommend, especially since your kids didn't know their Nana, is to share your memories of her (pre-illness) with them. I wish you all the best as you grapple with your loss.

Posted by: lorenw507 | January 30, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Stacey, let me add my condolences as well! May her memories always bring lots of love and laughter to you and your family!

When our older daughter was four, my husband's stepfather died after a struggle with diabetes and heart problems. We didn't take her to the funeral (I wanted her to "stay gold," as Johnny from "The Outsiders" said), but I explained to her about it.

As Wiccans, we believe that the spirit of every living thing goes to Summerland after death (or "crossing over," as we put it). That's a place where the spirit rests and recharges until the right time comes around for it to be reborn into another life here on earth. She understood that Pop-Pop's spirit was resting after being worn out from fighting what made his body so sick, and that someday it would start a new life. That cheered her up somewhat, and at Halloween last year (or Samhain to the Pagan/Wiccan communities), we lit a candle for him and remembered fun things about him. We also explained about his body being buried and turning into the soil that grows the grass and worms and other critters that are a part of the circle of life (or at least it would be allowed to if it wasn't for those stupid concrete vaults that cemeteries are so hipped on these days). She's accepted it well. She had also gotten to see him before he died, as my MIL took her to visit him in the nursing home up until his condition deteriorated to terminal (I was pregnant with my second at the time and was too sick to go anywhere until the middle of the second trimester-all day morning sickness SUCKS). I'm glad she got to do that, as she cheered him up and he didn't just "disappear" before he died.

When our pets cross over, they'll receive a burial in the backyard, with similar rituals at Samhain observances as well. Death is not something to be feared...rather, it's a part of life.

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | January 30, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Stacey, I'm sorry.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | January 30, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Stacey, I am very sorry for your loss. My mom died a little over two years ago, and my dad died 14 years ago--I still miss both of them so much. I do find comfort in the fact that occasionally they show up in a dream and it's like they are back with me. I know it's in my mind and not reality, but it is a comfort.

I hope that you will find peace and comfort in time and that you can recall your mom in better times. She's always with you in your heart.

Posted by: lsturt | January 30, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry for the news, Stacey. Best wishes at a difficult time.

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 30, 2009 6:40 PM | Report abuse

I'm so sorry for your loss. Please take care of yourself.

Posted by: newsahm | January 31, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Stacy, I am so sorry for your loss. It is never easy to explain death to your children, especially when you are dealing with your own emotions. Take your time to reflect on happy memories of your mom and share those with your kids!

Posted by: coachjamie | February 4, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

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