By Kelly Kilmer
“Mama, my Grammy died.” There is a brief pause. “Now she can’t play with me anymore.” My three-year-old daughter, Emma, looks up at me through thick eyelashes. “Are you crying, Mama?”
I nod as I gather Emma in my arms and hold her tightly, trying to stem the flow of tears. “Honey, the doctors tried to make her better, but they couldn’t. You know that Grammy will always be in your heart, though. Let’s try to think of some fun things that you and Grammy used to do.”
As we sit on the couch and reminisce, my tears slowly dry, and we even laugh a bit. But my heart is contracted with pain, and I feel the slow build-up of rage at death and at the unfairness of this situation. Various experts agree that the grief cycle begins in denial and moves on to anger, self-blame, depression, and finally acceptance. I have gone through that typical cycle and am working toward acceptance, but I also feel trapped in my anger.
As a mother who practices attachment parenting, I work hard to treat my children with respect. Dying, death, and dealing with loss are difficult subjects to approach in a respectful manner with children. There is also very little support for parents who attempt to include their children in the process. Many people I encountered didn’t seem to think that Emma was capable of understanding death, or even of having feelings about it. This attitude heightened my growing sense of fury, not only at losing my beloved mother-in-law less than two weeks before the birth of my second child, but also at society’s perception of children and its unwillingness to help them heal from painful loss.
As my mother-in-law lay in a coma and hope dwindled over the two days before she passed away, I was forced to put my pain and grief in reserve while I helped with funeral arrangements, cleaned out her closets, and made dozens of phone calls to friends of the family. My husband seemed paralyzed and incapable of action. He could not bear to talk with his friends and spent much of the time holding hands with his father and talking to his mother, urging her to fight to stay with us. My father-in-law could hardly bear to look at Emma, breaking into sobs each time she entered the room.
Meanwhile, I fought back my panic and kept myself busy with the rest of the family. I had no idea how I would get through the next few months. My mother-in-law was my bulwark, my friend, and my best support system. She was Emma’s best friend, spending many hours with her every week. She was to be my doula during our upcoming homebirth, which could happen at anytime. I just prayed I would make it through the funeral before I went into labor.
I asked friends and family for advice about how to talk to Emma about what was happening; I searched the Web, bookstores, and my e-mail lists. Conflicting advice roared in my ears, little of it making any sense. It was hard to find the inner “mother voice” that I could usually rely on to get me through difficult times.
I was dismayed by the suggestion that I say nothing to Emma. Many people seemed to think that she wouldn’t understand, that it would only upset her to see her grandmother before she died, and that it would damage her psyche in some way. These ideas went against everything that was in my heart and that I knew about my daughter. Pushing aside my panic and my sorrow, I reached deep within myself to find the answers.
I turned to my best friend and mentor to my daughter, who is also a psychologist. As I spoke with her about my feelings and instincts, I began to feel strength flow through me. I hung up the phone and went to pick Emma up at her friend’s house. I explained that her Grammy had a boo-boo on her brain, and that the doctors had tried to make her better, but nothing worked. Emma is a sensitive child, and I didn’t want to overload her with information she could not handle or understand. I also was aware that she is enormously gifted with empathy and intelligence.
I asked her if she wanted to see her Grammy one more time before she died and have a chance to say goodbye to her. She was adamant that she wanted to do this. Everyone in the family except for my husband felt that this was unfair to her, and that she would only be traumatized by it. Thankfully, my husband supported my decision to allow her this last meeting.
With tears in my eyes, I carried Emma into the hospital room. Her beloved grandmother looked peaceful but strangely mechanical, with the respirator working to fill her lungs. This was also my opportunity to say good-bye. I said my inner farewell to this lovely and vibrant woman, and asked my daughter if she wanted to say anything. She shook her head, mute, and I turned to walk out. As I did, she turned back one last time and waved her hand, whispering, “I love you.”
We took the elevator to the parking garage and got in the car. I asked Emma if she was okay. She looked at me as I buckled her into her car seat and angrily said, “I did not say goodbye to Grammy.” I told her that it was all right and kissed her forehead. I chose not to take her to the funeral, which would only overwhelm her, and to allow myself an opportunity to cry without scaring her with the depth of my grief.
Six months later, I am so grateful that I followed my instincts. Emma still mentions her grandmother frequently, with love rather than anger or sorrow. We answered her questions over and over for several months about where her grandmother had gone and what had happened, and assured her that not everyone dies when they get sick. It was painful to hear her talk about my mother-in-law, but we were not afraid to let her see our tears and know that it is healthy to be sad when you lose someone.
It is still sometimes hard for our family to look at our now vibrant and eloquent three year old. I am angry that her grandmother is not here to see Emma’s beauty, her athletic abilities, and her wonder at the world; I rage that my youngest daughter never will know her talented grandmother, and that she never was held by those loving hands. I am still angry with those people who intimated that my toddler was not enough of a person to deserve consideration in her own loss.
I know that, as the months pass, I will find healing by listening to my heart. I also know that I learned something important about trusting my instincts, and that it is true that a mother knows her child best. I thought about what my mother-in-law would have wanted, and I know I did the right thing. The rage and grief will lessen, but we will always miss the special love and light of a grandmother.
Kelly Kilmer is a freelance writer specializing in parenting and health issues, with an occasional foray into politics. She is the mother to two daughters and resides in central Pennsylvania . Kelly has written for various online and print forums, including Oxygen Media and Bella Online. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org