Originally published May, 2005. Republished June 28, 2012.
When my husband died several months ago, my grief was so heavy that I felt as though I had stopped breathing. We completed one another. The love surrounding me from family and friends was not enough to penetrate my sorrow.
I was curious and concerned how my three grandchildren would cope with their grandfather's death, since they had each been so close to him. Letting them see my grief was healthy, I was advised, because it let them see them how much their grandfather was loved by me.
I wondered what emotional tools my grandchildren were using to cope with this loss, and what was the source of these tools. I also wanted to know if their religious differences would mean they have different styles of mourning.
Danielle, who is eight, lives on the East Coast with non-religious parents, both Jewish. Matt, eleven, and Andrew, nine, live on the West Coast with their Jewish father and Catholic mother and attend a Catholic school. Speaking with each child separately (although the boys were at the same table), I conducted a mini interview with each of them, asking about their emotional tools. I was amazed at how communicative and open with their feelings the boys were and how clear my granddaughter was. There were no one-word responses and whatever question I sent their way was answered. I laughed and cried during this journey with them, told them how important their love and support is to me during this sad time in my life, how much their Papa loved them, and how I treasure their love of him and me.
They were extremely sensitive to my feelings as I was to theirs, never judging or challenging anything said. I listened. I learned... and I would like to share their words with you.
Danielle told me she didn't think I would be all right, she knew I would be. She said Papa was my one and only love and I would never get married again. She said that Papa used to see her every week or every other week, and now he sees her everyday. She feels his presence. Her friends understood when she cried in school, especially the ones who also had suffered losses in their family. Her teachers gave her kind and supportive words and told her how fortunate she was to have her Gamma temporarily living with her, giving us an opportunity to help each other. Danielle would stroke my arm, telling me she loved me.
Danielle, while raised Jewish and taught Jewish values by her parents, has not yet received any formal Jewish education. She has found her spiritual path herself. She felt that what she knows of her own Jewish religion did not offer her solace at this difficult time. She spoke of crying at night, explaining that during the day she's so busy, but at night she thinks of Papa and how she misses him. She said, "At night when I feel like crying, I squeeze my favorite stuffed animal Monkey and feel I'm holding Papa. I pray, and what I pray for is for all of us to live healthy long lives."
Danielle said that she didn't get to see Papa in the hospital, it was so sudden, and that made her sad. She said that he always looked so healthy. She found the Buddhist chant Nam Myeo Renege Kyo, which she learned from me, helped her with finding peace. "I know Papa Barry and my other grandparents, Natalie and Dick, are in heaven watching me. I honor Papa by playing more chess. I honor Papa by remembering him with love and that gives me comfort." Her memories of Papa were "his great stories and knowing he loved me so much." She also remembers playing "love trap," having to kiss and hug him before getting out of his arms.
I asked Matt and Andrew what their thoughts were when they found out about Grandpa, who was living at the other end of the country, over 3,000 miles away. Eleven-year-old Matt said he felt horrified and can't even really explain, but it was one of the worst feelings in the world. "Inside I hurt so much, but I didn't cry. My teacher said she was very sorry and would be praying for my grandfather. I think Grandpa is in one of the happiest places in heaven. He's a guardian angel to me. When I pray at school, I feel he is giving me strength. Grandpa is a spirit within God that is helping me. God wants me to know that Grandpa is helping us to do all good things. I remember everyday that Grandpa is with me in spirit."
Matt and Andrew both said that Grandpa made them feel good about themselves even when they felt sad. "He made me laugh." "We talked about school and the things we did... we played checkers... we talked about everything."
Andrew said he felt dreadful, shocked and was in a lot of pain when he found out. He said, "Mommy and I cried together. I'm sometimes moody at school because I can't stop thinking about Grandpa. My friends whose grandparents died are very nice and understanding to me. My teacher felt sorry for me. We have a prayer box in school for someone who is sick or died or if you just want to say a prayer. I did this for Grandpa." Both boys said they "pray for petitions." I asked them to please explain. After Mass in school, a prayer leader calls for everyone to say a prayer to Jesus out of love... and they pray for Grandpa and for Grandma to feel okay.
What was my reaction to the prayers that I was so unfamiliar with? I was proud of my grandsons and realized the innocence and love they were showing as they told me of these petitions. What was important was the love behind their words, and nothing else mattered to me.
I think of families alienated from one another, grandparents who don't see or experience their grandchildren and who don't have love and support from their own sons and daughters due to "differences." Trying to control your children is a no-win situation. You lose the most precious gifts — the love and respect from your children and the ability to see, hear, and touch your grandchildren. My favorite expression is to turn the other cheek because you'll probably get kissed.
All three of my grandchildren feel their grandfather is in a very special place and watches over them. Their advice to me is "think happy thoughts." In fact, a conversation reflecting the innocence of a child's mind happened when I was visiting the boys' family for two months. The boys saw me crying many times and nine-year-old Andrew came in my room one night and said "Grandma, I have an idea for you. If every time you think of Grandpa, you cry, just don't think about him anymore." I was very careful not to say anything about his suggestion. I gently told him that I knew his grandfather over fifty years and he was worth my tears, but his idea is a very positive one for many other situations, such as losing a game or being upset with a friend. He understood and then said it upsets him to see me cry, but he understands.
Differences? There may be some, but when both boys spoke of "stewardship," I asked for an explanation. It seems stewardship refers to "acts of kindness towards family, neighbors, and your parish, and how a simple act of kindness can make a huge difference it the world." I told them about "mitzvahs," good deeds, and how similarly their father performed mitzvahs before his bar mitzvah, and somehow still does so today.
When I attended grandparents' day at my grandsons' school, Matt's teacher said, "a wonderful and special letter" was awaiting me. She was right. Matt gave me permission to share his words with you.
Thank you for showing me all the good things God has done for us. I am so glad that I am able to share Catholic and Jewish faith. I want you to know I love you and want to thank you for giving me a great Dad and I can celebrate Passover and Hanukkah with. I love you so much,
So what are the differences I felt? None.