The small beacon in that terrifying darkness
On mourning a death with young children
On the day my grandfather died, I walked into his workshop alone. I don’t know what I was looking for. I wanted to spend time in the place where I saw him at his best.
The fluorescent lights hummed on and I paced the floor looking at his tools. White pegboards hung with saws, wrenches, and hammers. Clamps by the dozen. Safety helmets from his job at the paper mill. Back issues of The Family Handyman tucked in magazine holders with the years written on the side.
He started teaching my brother and me to build things in his workshop when we were very young. Birdhouses first, then more complicated projects as we were able. We built a coffee table as a wedding present for my wife, and then we made mechanical wooden pull toys for my children. I knew him in his workshop as a man who was patient, methodical, and willing to teach.
People saw my grandfather at different angles throughout his life: in the Marines, where I’m told he was tough as nails; at the paper mill, where he mentored younger workers; and at home, where he was gentle and practical and proud of the family he’d made with my grandmother.
I know how I will remember my grandfather, but I don’t know how my children will. My twin daughters are six and my son is four, so they will probably remember a few hazy impressions when they are grown.
When I told my children the news, I put it as directly and simply as possible. He died. He was sick, and then he died.
We had talked about death before, first when our cat died and then when my father-in-law died last year. We had talked about death as a part of the life cycle of every living thing, and they knew it was permanent and the knowledge didn’t make it easier.
They didn’t have a lot of questions at first. Slowly, they began to process his death in their own way.
In the early mornings after my grandfather passed, one of my daughters started climbing into bed and wrapping her arms around my neck until I woke up. Then she would pepper me with questions about our cat. What was he like? How did he die? Where did we bury his body? It dawned on me after a few days why she was asking all these questions, so I pulled up pictures of her in the arms of her great-grandfather, and we talked about him and the joy she brought into his life.
My other daughter is slower to reveal her emotions, but in the past week she started asking big questions about death. Last night it all came tumbling out.
I was tucking her into bed when she asked, “Why do boys keep dying in our family?”
I told her it had nothing to do with being boys. I laid down beside her and we talked for a while about death and cancer and happy memories before I asked why that question was on her mind.
“I don’t want you to die,” she said.
My daughter reminds me of myself at her age, especially when she hides her feelings and confuses strength for equanimity. I could tell that this worry had been on her mind for days, maybe even weeks. We cried and held each other.
I used to write a parenting column for the local newspaper, and one week I interviewed a hospice chaplain named Janice Meyer about how to discuss death with young children.
Her first piece of advice was to answer questions simply and not launch into a whole spiel. Use simple words like “dead” and “died.” Wait and listen for more questions.
“If we don’t wait for that, we may miss the boat with what they really are thinking and what they want to know,” she told me. “Be present and be comfortable with the silence.” I’ve carried that advice with me this past year.
It has been difficult to find closure or provide it for my children during the Covid pandemic, when it is not possible to hug every family member, share a meal, or even bring the whole family to the graveside. Death hems us in, and we can’t even properly mourn it. I feel that a floodgate of grief will open when we are all together again.
I don’t know what my children will remember about this year, but their emotions in the present moment are as real as my own.
“I wish death wasn’t real,” my daughter told me in her bed last night, and I told her I agreed.
“Why does Jesus let people die?” she asked, and I told her I didn’t know.
My children got to see their great-grandfather once in the final weeks of his life. When it was time to leave, they stood across the living room in masks as he gave a short farewell speech. He was a natural preacher who loved giving benedictory prayers. I thought about my father-in-law who had given the kids their Christmas presents early before dying last fall, and I sensed that the end must be near.
I am grateful that my children saw him lucid and strong enough to sit up. First and last impressions tend to stick. But I also plan to help them build and rebuild memories of my grandfather. We can tell them stories about the exemplary life he led, sing the songs he loved to sing, and pull out the sturdy wooden toys he built for them.
I’ll always remember him in his workshop, and I’ll pass that memory down.
Today’s title comes from Baldwin.