My 98-year-old grandmother passed away in August-suddenly AND unexpectedly. When I say that, people are often surprised. They understand the suddenly part. She suffered a massive stroke while in the hospital waiting for a procedure. But the “unexpectedly” part is not so understood.
There is a paradox when an older person dies. People express condolences but there always seems to be a consolation. Many responses to her death were met with “well at least she lived a long and full life”, mixed in with a few “she made it to 98, you couldn’t have expected her to go on much longer”. It’s not that these perspectives aren’t supportive or the truth. Life “expectancy” in Canada for females is the early 80’s so she certainly beat the statistics.
But letting go of someone you love – regardless of age – is often a very painful process. And then explaining the loss to your children even more so.
During the many years I worked as a social worker in acute care hospitals, supporting people through grief and loss was a big part of my role. But as we sat there in the early morning playing Scrabble; away from home and on vacation when we got the call that Bubi lay dying in her hospital bed, I found few words that could offer solace to my children’s wide eyes and raw grief. Both cried inconsolably at the news that their beloved Bubi Mynne was no longer.
I tried to provide them with the most factual answers: “What happened?” “Bubi Mynne has died” “How did she die?” “She had something called a stroke that caused her brain and heart to stop working”. But they were left with spiritual questions. How could someone so important and vibrant as she be here one minute, and gone the next? The thought of this was beyond their comprehension, and in those moments, mine as well. After their tears, my daughter looked at me and said: “I hope Bubi Mynne is with the twinkling stars and pink ponies in the sky”. Who was I to tell her anything different.
Saying goodbye is never easy. But not being able to say goodbye is just as hard. For the days that followed, my kids lamented on their sadness of never being able to say goodbye to her in person, to sit with her and eat jello and giggle as she repeated her regular questions, to give her that final hug, to have her plant that kiss just one more time on the top of their heads at the end of each visit.
And so, in dealing with our loss, we decided to say goodbye our own way.
Just before leaving for our vacation, my daughter had visited Bubi in the retirement home for their weekly Bingo game. It just so happened that my daughter ended up winning Bingo on what would be their last time playing together. This was a huge victory for my daughter who held her winnings with great pride. In that moment, of beaming joy between both her and Bubi, I snapped a picture. And now we look at the picture and talk about that day; about what it felt like to win Bingo and to be with Bubi Mynne. We all speak about these special times; and about the mutual enjoyment they created.
When someone dies, their physical presence is gone, but keeping something they owned or used can help preserve a sense of physical closeness. When my grandmother was moving to her retirement home a few years ago-she cleaned out her home and distributed the artifacts she no longer would be using to her children and grandchildren. Today, my daughter holds my grandmother’s cardigan sweater in her arms because it still “smells like Bubi and feels like Bubi” and this is very comforting for her. A candy dish that used to be filled with mints and chocolates that my children remember taking candy from when no one was looking, now sits on a table waiting to be filled. By using these items in our everyday lives, there is a sense of history and also continuance. She is with us always.
When we were at the Shiva (where people come to greet the mourners), the Bingo volunteer at the retirement home came up to my daughter and gave her a rather life-like dog stuffed animal. I did not realize how much of an impact this stuffed animal gift would have for my daughter. She named the dog after my grandmother and brings it everywhere with her. She created a place for her to sleep in her room, and provided her with a water, food bowl and even a special bathtub. And much to my initial dismay, she has also put a collar and leash on it and takes it for walks while I walk our real dog. I know that as she works through her grief in her own way, this new dog will be retired to her dog bed and she will move on.
Death is a part of life. And in my grandmother’s case, it happened at the best possible time; the end. Losing a grandparent or great grandparent is often the first time a child may be experiencing loss. Helping them cope with this natural life event can be complex and mixed with our own anxieties about death and dying. It is important to recognize that each child will experience this event differently based on their age and also their own unique personalities and perspectives.
Providing a safe harbour for them to express themselves is key.
My grandmother often told me that despite some of the challenges she faced with getting older, the joy in her life was the connection to the family around her. I am not sure if she ever knew how much joy she provided to all of us. And while we are so appreciative of having had her in our lives for so long, I don’t think we would have ever been truly ready to say goodbye.
*Image used in this blog cannot be used without express written permission from Her Magazine.