This summer, we found out that my grandpa has cancer in the bile duct of his liver. This word is not new to my family. In 2010, we lost my grandma to a five year battle with ovarian cancer. But, what is new is my children’s awareness of what is happening now as opposed to five years ago. They were only two and five at that time; almost still considered babies.
Now, they are seven and ten, and they question everything. The first question they both asked me was “Is Grandpa going to die?”
When I was growing up, death was talked about openly and honestly. It was probably discussed more in my family than others since my dad was the son of a funeral director. When my paternal grandfather passed away, my grandmother took over the business. From a very young age, I remember my summer visits with my grandma involved going to the beach and singing on her porch. I also remember going to the funeral home and watching her prepare for a funeral. I even remember going into the casket room to see the different caskets. It wasn’t so scary to me…it was just something that happened to everyone.
My grandma talked so much to me about my grandfather that I almost felt like I knew the man who had died years before I was even born. In fact, she talked so much about all of her own aunts and uncles and parents that I felt like they were relatives who lived in another state than people who had passed away a few generations before I was born.
I always knew that death happened to everyone. But, it seemed that it always happened to other people I didn’t really know or only people I had heard about…until it happened to me.
My dad called me the night before my thirtieth birthday and told me his mother had passed away, and I remember it hurting so much to know that I would not see her again…at least not here on earth. I knew I was lucky to have made it this long without losing a loved one. She had a long life, but I still felt empty inside as most people do at the death of a loved one. My son was only one at the time, and too little to even remember her. But I wanted him to know who she was and that she mattered. So, I put her picture in a photo album so he could see her face, and I could tell him things about her.
In 2010, my maternal grandmother passed away, and both my children had seen her on many occasions, but since they were so young, I was afraid they would forget her. So, I added her picture to the photo album so they could see her and we could talk about her visits with them even if they couldn’t recall it in their young minds.
I truly began to understand why my grandma told me so much about my grandpa and her family. They had become part of her, and if she didn’t talk about them, it was like not acknowledging a piece of herself. She loved them, and by talking about them and sharing their stories, a piece of them was still alive in her because their lives mattered. Both of my grandmothers had become a part of who I was as well.
So, when my children asked me if my grandpa was going to die, I was honest with them and told them I didn’t know when he would die, but dying is something we would all have to do one day. I didn’t know if he would die of cancer or something else. I could tell them what I do know to be true. He was going to fight hard. He loves us all very much. And, yes, there is a possibility he may die from cancer. We are Catholic and we believe (and I have taught my children) that our spirits go to heaven when we die.
My son asked me how he would be able to find my Grandpa in heaven if everyone went there and it would be crowded. My daughter asked me if one day she would get to meet my Grandma. They both asked me what they should do if they just miss my grandpa too much. I answered them once again in the most honest way I could. I have faith that one day we will all find each other again in heaven.
I also told them what I had learned from my grandma. If we think of the happy times we had, and share those happy times about people who have died and continue to talk about them, then it is like a piece of them is still with us.
Everyone has to die. It is something that will happen no matter what we do about it. But, it is the times we spend with our loved ones and the memories we make with those we love that become a part of us and those memories will last even when we die.
I told my children the hardest part of dying is not the person who has died, but the grief of the people who are left behind. The person who has died has been transported to a beautiful place of happiness and peace. It is okay to feel sad, and even angry, when someone dies. However, it is up to us if we will remain sad and angry. We can choose to remember all the wonderful things that person brought to our lives. It is the things we learned from that person and the memories of them we carry in our hearts that are always with us. Those memories become part of who we are. And, if we can think about it that way, our loved ones are always with us.
Even though they are still young, I think my children are starting to understand such an abstract, unknown and inevitable part of life. We are all on this journey of life together, and I am looking forward to making even more memories which will last more than a lifetime with the people I love. Whether we want to talk about it or even admit it, our lives and the lives of our loved ones who have passed away are woven together in a mysterious and beautiful way.
Have you talked to your children about death? How did you explain it?
This is an original post for World Mom’s Blog by Meredith. You can check out her life as an expat and her transition back in her blog www.wefoundhappiness.blogspot.com.
Photo credit to McKay Savage. This photo has a creative commons attribute license.