Almost a year ago now, my father passed away. I received the news in slow motion; anyone who has heard this kind of news knows exactly what I mean by that. Of course I felt the initial pain of my own loss, but my attention immediately turned to my daughter. How was I going to tell my little girl (who at that time was two months shy of turning three and so in love with her “Umpaw”) that she would never see him again? How could I make her understand? More than anything, how could I tell her in a way that I felt was true to my beliefs?
Being that I am not a Christian, I faced a special dilemma. I, unlike so many others I know, did not have the option to simply tell her that he went to Heaven. I could not give her the comfort of promising to see him again. I am not saying there is not a Heaven, but considering myself an Agnostic, I could not find it in myself to tell her something I could not stand by fully. Even at that tender age, I felt that I owed their special relationship my truth.
After some of the initial arrangements were made I decided to simply sit her down and tell her. I did this softly, as any mother would, but I did so with a literal sense of things. I explained to her that later that day we would be going over to grandfather’s house, and before she could get excited, I quickly added that he would not be there. Of course she asked me “why?” (That word would of course become something I had to battle a lot from that point on.) I told her that his body had stopped working, he had died, and we would not be able to see him again. She then asked me if the doctors could make his body work again. To which I had to reply with a simple no.
From that point I went into a diluted bit of science. I told her, to the best of my ability, the sequence of events in which this tragedy had happened. She had lots of questions, and I had few solid answers, but I tried. She cried. I cried. We held each other. However terrible that moment was, the worst part was over. I had introduced to my young child the concept of death, and breaking that innocence in her was the hardest thing I have ever done.
Over the next few weeks our home was filled with a lot of questions, talk of what happens after life, and random moments of spontaneous sobbing, from the both of us. The questions have dwindled over the past year and we are finding our new normal. We both still have our moments of reflection and tears, and we both still miss him everyday, but it does get easier. She learned to accept.
My father was cremated last summer. My little family made the long and emotional journey from Texas to his home state of Michigan to spread him there, according to his wishes. My beautiful little girl held my hand, stepped into the river, where my father played as a child, and helped me put him to rest there. With our family surrounding us, we watched as he trickled, a beautiful golden stream, down the bends of his childhood. She looked to me and said, “Mommy, he’s everywhere.” To which I responded, “Yes baby, he is.”
If you choose to take a different path, or you are of a faith that defines, for you, what happens after death, then your solution may be relatively simple. Well, as simple as these things can be. Regardless of what works for you, remember the first steps are the hardest. Everything after that is simply healing. Trust your heart and give your child their due credit. They feel loss, sadness, and most importantly love as strong if not stronger than the rest of us. My daughter will still ask occasionally if we can “fix” her grandfather and bring him back, and those days are always hard. Most days though, she tells me he is growing into beautiful flowers, making the world beautiful for her. Those are the days when I know that she is at peace and I did the best I could.