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Watching your child lose a grandparent at age seven is very difficult, especially when that grandparent is your own mother, and thus you find yourself walking the fine line of managing your own grief while navigating the waters of your child’s first experience with death. Children have a way of “keeping it real”, and my girls this past year did just that when they suffered the loss of their grandmother at ages seven and three. The comprehension for loss is quite different at those ages. For the three year-old it was outward and loud and well, not entirely comprehending; she wanted to talk all the time about her grandmother in heaven, often ending these short bursts of curiosity with comments about how when she was an angel she would make her well again. For the seven year-old it was inward and quiet. She did not want to talk at all, and the rare times that she did it was with heart-breaking understanding of the permanence of loss. “No one else loved me or listened to me like she did,” she said, and you know as her mother that she is right.
Luckily, this beautiful-hearted daughter of yours, had a grandfather, whom she adored and who adored her right back. They spent countless hours in each other’s company; he was an active and integral part of her life, and she loved him. You felt this would help mitigate the loss of her grandmother, and it should have. But then he found freedom. Freedom from the burden of a dysfunctional marriage, freedom from the life that oppressed him, freedom, as it turns out, from the children and grandchildren who supported him. And you see this young girl, once so full of innocence and wonder, change right before your eyes as she realizes her relationship has changed with her grandfather, too, and there is not a thing you can do to stop it.
So, in addition to helping your seven year-old cope with the literal death of a grandparent, you need to support her through the additional, figurative death of another, one who is still physically present but whose emotional availability has gone to another woman, her family, and her set of children and grandchildren. And for you that man is your father, so it adds another layer to your own grief, but you have to set that aside when dealing with your child. As every loving mother comes to know, your child’s emotional needs always come first. Too bad the same cannot be said of fathers and grandfathers, right?
Your daughter will attempt to still engage with her grandfather like she used to at first, but then she will learn, after multiple rejections, to stop asking. She will sweetly inquire as to whether he would like to join her at school for lunch in the second grade, which is available to him five days a week. As he is retired and lives a mere six minutes from her school he will say, “Yes, someday soon”, but then will not actually show up to do it. So the ‘somedays’ will actually be ‘nevers’, and she will learn that quickly. You will try as her mother to appeal to him, to share with him how very difficult this year has been on her, and he will agree. He is just “so busy”, but he “will try”, and you will soon see that his words are empty of action. So you will stop asking. And begging. And pleading.
He has found a new woman, one whose hand he chose to be holding when your mother died instead of being there to hold hers or yours. She will become the permanent fixture, the replacement wife and mother and grandmother, all within a matter of months, and you find yourself having to explain to your daughter that while it may seem that her grandfather is forgetting his previous wife and her grandmother, he really loved her and is just sad and lonely. Because as her mother, it is your job to protect whatever tiny shred of innocence may be left so you hide the harsh truth from her.
In the end, you won’t have to, though, because she will reveal it to you, as only children can.
She will look at you, eyes brimming with tears in the shadowy nighttime light of her room, the only time and place she allows herself to express her feelings, and say, “Papa has really changed this year. I remember when he used to be kind.”
As her mother, your heart will shatter, because you will see that all along, it was she who was protecting you from the truth, not the other way around.
Guest Blogger: Ashley Taylor
Ashley is a mostly-stay-at-home mom to Emma (8) and Abby (4), wife to her husband Robert (41ish), and an occasional nurse. At this point, she stands a better chance of creating world peace than keeping her house clean and organized. She considers it a good day when she remembers to pick up both kids at school and tears are only shed by two or three members of her family, herself included. Her main goal in life is to surround herself with people who are real and tell it like it is.