Learning to say goodbye.
I sat nursing my newborn son in what’s affectionately called “the yellow room.” It’s been that color for many years, since my mother-in-law was a girl. It was her bedroom back then- where she made her memories as a little girl, a teenager, a young woman. While sunlight danced around the cheerful walls, I nursed my son and noticed how he clenched my index finger with his tiny fingers. With his delicate hands wrapped tightly around mine, I was overwhelmed with love for this new little life.
In that room, we were holding hands celebrating the beginning of a new life. In the next room, our loved ones were also holding hands with one another. But, they weren’t celebrating. They were saying goodbye while a precious life slipped quietly away. My husband’s grandfather had been ill for some time, and we had come to say our final goodbye. His loved ones took turns standing at his bedside, holding his hands so that each time he drifted into consciousness, he would be comforted knowing he wasn’t alone. They spent most of the day that way, each one saying their goodbyes. He passed away later that evening.
As we drove home, in the quiet I wondered how I would explain this to my 3-year-old. As I nurture a new life and grieve one well-lived, I find it hard to make sense of it all myself. How can a 3-year-old possibly understand? I didn’t know exactly how we would do it, but I knew one thing. We were going to tell her the truth.
My husband and I agreed that we would tell her together. On the inside, I was dreading it. No one wants their child to experience the harsh realities of this world. I wish she could live the fairytales that she sees on television where everyone lives happily ever after. But I know that she can’t. We’re all in this together, and no matter how hard we try, we all must face the sadness of this world sometime. My job as her mother isn’t to pretend these things don’t exist, but to help her navigate all of the emotions that the circumstances of life bring and to navigate them in a healthy, constructive way.
We sat down for dinner that night and told her we wanted to tell her something important. Grandpa, as she already knew, had been very sick, we said. And today, Grandpa went to heaven and we won’t be able to see him anymore.
“Oh,” she said.
Trying to gauge her understanding, I asked, “Do you have any questions about that?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Do I have to eat my carrots, Mom, because you know I don’t like carrots?”
Okay, I thought, she doesn’t get it at all. That’s alright. She’s only three.
But, over the next several days she began to ask me questions, and I simply followed her lead and answered her the best I could.
“Why did Grandpa go to heaven?” she wanted to know.
“Because Grandpa was very sick and sometimes when people get older, they get sick and they die,” I tried my best to explain. “We’re very sad because we’re going to miss Grandpa a lot.”
“Why are you going to miss him?” she asked.
“Because when someone dies it means that we don’t get to see them anymore until we get to heaven, so we’ll be sad that we don’t get to see Grandpa anymore.”
“I don’t get to see Grandpa anymore?”
“What about Grammy?” she asked. I winced. She had only known the two of them together, and it didn’t make sense that one could be without the other.
“Grammy is still here, but Grandpa isn’t.”
“Oh,” she said. “Will Grammy be sad?”
“Yes, Grammy is sad. And Mimi is sad too because, you know, Grandpa was Mimi’s Dad. We are happy that Grandpa isn’t sick anymore, but we’re all sad that we can’t see him.
After some silence I said, “On Sunday, we are going to go to church to say goodbye to Grandpa. We are going to remember all the things we loved about him.”
She perked up. “We’re going to say goodbye to him?!” she asked, excitedly. I realized that she thought she would get to see him as she said goodbye. My heart broke for her.
“We are going to say goodbye in our hearts, but he’s already in heaven so we won’t get to see him.”
“Oh,” she said sadly.
When Sunday came and we prepared to go to the memorial service, we reminded her again that we were going to say goodbye to Grandpa.
It was then that she told us she wanted to make something special for her grandmother and great grandmother. She sat at her little white table in her playroom and worked diligently for a while. Then, she asked us if we could help her write something for Grammy and for Mimi.
My husband sat with her and helped her spell out the words that she wanted to write.
That’s all she said.
My heart ached as she finished each piece and set them aside to give to her grandmothers. She said that she was giving it to them as a gift, but I realized that it wasn’t so much about giving a gift as it was processing the reality of our situation in the only way she knew how.
It was heart-wrenchingly painful to watch her experience this sadness and continue to experience it still. But, I also feel a sense of satisfaction that we were brave enough to let her wade into the deep waters with us. I wanted her to see that we’re not afraid to be sad. We’re not afraid to be honest. We’re not afraid to love, even if means losing, too.
I hope as she grows and experiences the inevitable losses that will again come her way that she can remember this: nothing in this life is ours to keep forever.
We have to love what’s precious to us with all we are, and eventually we also have to let it go.